Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bach: The Toccatas, Andrea Bacchetti

Bach: The Toccatas, Andrea Bacchetti
Toccata in G Major BWV 916 [7:13]
Toccata in E minor BWV 914 [8:43]
Toccata in D minor BWV 913 – earlier version [16:10]
Toccata in G minor BWV 915 [10:29]
Toccata in D Major BWV 912 – later version [14:38]
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV 910 [9:12]
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 [12:21]
Recorded at Fazioli Concert Hall of Sacile, Italy 13 October 2009 to 12 January 2010 Stereo DDD
DYNAMIC CDS 658 [79:43]

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Once was the time that piano recordings of the Bach Toccatas, like those of the Goldberg Variations, fell into two categories: Glenn Gould and not Glenn Gould. A younger generation of pianists now seems intent on changing all that, integrating elements of Gould’s Bach without necessarily falling under the shadow of his larger-than-life musical persona.

Andrea Bacchetti’s decision to record the Toccatas is itself instructive, they being works long dominated in the catalogue by the Gould recordings. But Bacchetti already has highly regarded recordings of the English Suites, Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias already under his belt, which clearly demonstrate he is his own man when it comes to Bach.

The relative neglect of the Toccatas by pianists is difficult to explain. They are early works, from the composer’s Weimar period, but then most of Bach’s keyboard music predates his move to Leipzig. They are somewhat lacking in contrapuntal ingenuity, although the BWV 913, 914 and 915 Toccatas each ends in an impressive fugue. They also lack the stylistic variety of the suites, although they more than make up for this in textural variety.

Bacchetti avoids extremes in his interpretations. The performance style favours smooth legato, reserved ornamentation and an even balance between the hands. He is rarely tempted to emphasise fugal subjects or thematically significant bass lines. His touch is delicate rather than muscular; everything is confident and decisive, but nothing is emphatic or overstated.

Little surprise, then that the greatest interpretive distance between Bacchetti and Gould is in the louder and faster movements. Compare, for example, their readings of the final fugue of BWV 914. Where Gould is fast and angular, Bacchetti is even and lyrical. He is not as heavy on the left hand as his predecessor either, so you have to listen all the more closely to pick out the counterpoint. But Bacchetti shapes the movement in a way that would probably be of little interest to Gould. He gradually builds up to the recapitulation, but even when he reaches it, there is little sense of exaltation, as he maintains a sense of control and balance to the very end. In a way, it is just as impressive as Gould’s fireworks, even if it doesn’t grab the attention in quite the same way.

Gould’s legacy is much clearer in the adagios. Both pianists share a desire for the piano to sing in these movements, although Bacchetti refrains from any Gould-like vocalisations of his own. The closest the two men come is in the Adagio of BWV 911, where Bacchetti creates a luminous inner beauty in the sound of each of the piano chords. It is all a little faster and more foursquare than you would expect from Gould, but it is clearly in his spirit.

The recorded sound is good, although not particularly crisp. This may be deliberate, an attempt to compliment the rounded, legato style of the pianist with a warm sound profile. It all adds up to an attractive offering, nothing extreme but a performance with clear artistic focus, and based on a desire to find beauty in every element of the music. After the rapturous reception that greeted Bacchetti’s previous Bach recording, he is clearly not resting on his laurels.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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