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Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccatas in D Minor, BWV 913 and E Minor, BWV 914Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (Preludes & Fugues Nos. 5 in D Major, BWV 850 and 13 in F-sharp Major, BWV 858)Keyboard Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
Jeffrey Biegel (piano)
Recorded in the Concert Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York (June 16-17, 2010)
Steinway & Sons 30001 – Booklet in English

This is a handsomely recorded and well-played Bach recital on piano. I would suggest skipping the liner notes altogether, however, and let the recording speak for itself. The printed essays at first seem like an advertisement for Steinway & Sons ("it has a full range of sound and is responsive to the touch"), then a confused dictum on what kind of instrument these pieces should be performed on and what kind of ornamentation the performer should use, if any.

All of these words amount to a whole lot of nothing. Pianists have played Bach's music on Steinways since the dawn of the recorded age, and ornamentation is and should be a personal decision. While I haven't listened to the entire discography of the French Suites or other present repertoire, I would be hard pressed to think of one on my shelf where the pianist, harpsichordist or clavichordist doesn't ornament the repeats. It almost seems as if Biegel and the Steinway & Sons record label are trying to draw the listener away from the piano playing, which is unfortunate, since the performances are at a very high level throughout. Does Biegel achieve his goal, "to be true to the style while recreating the music on a modern instrument, with a Baroque sense of improvisation that's similar to what Bach would have done"? It is, of course, impossible to say. Who among us knows what Bach would have done? As our pianist himself admits, "Bach was a great improviser because I've looked at several editions of his music and he put different ornamentations in each." So, if a composer wants to be remembered as a great improviser, at least by Biegel, all they need do is put different ornamentations in different editions of their pieces? Like I said, forget the liner notes. Don't read, just listen!

The recital opens with a magisterial account of the D Minor Toccata that sets the tone for the entire disc. What is nice about Biegel's playing is his willingness to be risky with the music, to double bass pitches at multiple octaves, stretch tempos wildly, blur harmonies with ample pedaling and employ an impressively large dynamic and coloristic range. He is also keen to moments where he needs to omit ornamentation and pedaling. The two fugues are nicely voiced, and the bite in Biegel's articulation drives the music nicely forward. Ornamentation is scarce to nonexistent in these quick, highly contrapuntal sections. The coda of the D minor's first fugue is an excellent moment, with a nicely tiered crescendo leading upwards to the return of toccata-like figuration that ends the section. The exuberance of the D minor Toccata is nicely balanced by the solemnity of its E minor counterpart. There is no attempt to thicken Bach's noticeably sparser texture, and the third (Adagio) section of this work shows off Biegel's smart voicing, with pungent dissonances nicely emphasized and the shifts to the major mode eschewing an almost Schubertian sentimentality. The closing fugue is an intense whirlwind of sound.

In the Well-Tempered Clavier, I've always preferred a more adventurous approach, such as Olli Mustonen or Glenn Gould, and compared to those artists, Biegel suddenly seems tame. That doesn't mean these aren't interesting performances. On the contrary, these are wonderful essays in voicing, contrapuntal clarity and rhythmic and coloristic nuance that show that this pianist can stand comfortably beside Schiff, Brendel and the more 'conservative' interpreters. I can't say that I'm terribly fond of Biegel's occasional rhythmic double dotting in the D major fugue, but he is certainly not the first pianist to do this. The F-sharp major prelude, however, is a pure delight, with deliciously clear and even trills, and the ensuing fugue is its simple, pacific balm.

Biegel adopts a lighter overall tone for the French Suite. Perhaps more so than the rest of the recital, this work shows Biegel's intelligence and tastefulness at ornamenting repeats. One wonders up to this point if he can make 'sense' of the music and make it interesting without constantly adding to it, and he does just that. Each first phrase is played faithfully to the score yet doesn't lack in imaginative coloristic playing, dynamic gradations and slight rubato. The ornamented repeats emphasize the origin of these movements in dance, and feature some dizzyingly virtuosic jumps and tumbles around the keyboard. In the Gigue, Biegel is consistent with his ornaments across the three voices, keeping the counterpoint in check. Everything is enlivened by Biegel's snappy trills and mordents.

Just as the upbeat rendition of the D minor Toccata was offset by the darker performance of its E minor sibling, so the spritely performance of the French Suite is balanced by a turgid, unrelenting reading of the C minor Partita. Biegel relishes in some of Bach's close lower spacing, allowing the sound at times to accumulate a little bit of muddy residue and then clearing it away in vain hopes. The entire suite sounds nearly like Brahms at his most tragic. Particularly notable are the slowly lilting rhythmic sway in the Sarabande and the icy, dry articulation in the Rondeau.

The recorded sound is very close, and every detail of articulation can be heard, but it is all beautifully articulated. The instrument used indeed produces a beautiful sound, but even if Biegel played this well on a 'lesser' instrument, the result would still be convincing. The marketing of this disc more as a Steinway 'product' might put some people off, but this hopefully isn't the case. Even though Bach's music and Biegel's interpretation could easily withstand less than an ideal instrument or recording conditions, it seems that the label and producer Steven Epstein have done everything in their powers to flatter the two artists that matter most in this project.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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