The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book II, BWV870-893
Peter Hill (piano)
Recorded 11-13 November 2010 & 19-20 February 2011 at the University Concert Hall, Cardiff
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: March 2012
CD No: DELPHIAN
DCD 31401 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 38 minutes
The public performance of J. S. Bach’s ‘48’ – together with his keyboard Partitas and Suites – on the modern concert-grand piano is a relatively recent practice, possibly within living memory, which today raises no eyebrows. Indeed, it has become so acceptable that the opportunities of hearing this music with any kind of approximation to the tone-colours that Bach himself had in mind when he wrote it – on the harpsichord, especially, or clavichord – are rare indeed.
But Bach’s music, it need hardly be said, needs much more than incidental colour to make its effect, and there is no doubt that, in the hands of a gifted and sympathetic artist, the colouration afforded by the modern piano can reveal aspects of the music which are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on such instruments as he knew.
There has always been some argument as to whether Bach ‘knew’ the early pianos – I incline to the view that he did, for he was always interested in instrumental development – otherwise, why write the ‘48’ at all? – and Charles Rosen, for one, is quite clear that Bach knew the piano, as an instrument that we would identify, in the final years of his life, even if he may not have possessed one himself.
Yet the fact remains that the great temptation of the modern piano – the sustaining pedal – ought to be avoided, virtually at all costs, by those pianists who essay these works – at least, in theory, for neither the harpsichord, nor any other domestic keyboard instrument of Bach’s time, could supply the feature.
And yet, at certain expressive moments, the momentary application of the sustaining pedal can supply an interpretative facility which can be shown to enhance, or in other ways assist, the performance of this music, and one may say, from a purely personal viewpoint, that Bach on the modern piano is by no means as anachronistic as would be, say, the Harpsichord Suites of Handel.
Peter Hill is that rare musician: a virtuoso with an immaculate and comprehensive technique allied to unusual and practical scholarship of great depth of knowledge, which he brings to the imposing task of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. His performances throughout of Book II on these Delphian discs are immaculate in terms of realisation of the notation, but are also driven by an emotional, expressive range that at all times looks below the surface of the music to divine the depths of Bach’s creativity.
In terms of tempos, Hill is ideal throughout these pieces; there is nothing contentious or meretricious about his speeds – they are, surely, those which Bach himself would have chosen had he found himself in the same position. Hill’s part-playing is a joy – always put at the service of the contrapuntal nature of the writing, and his approach to each of the individual Fugues surely stems from his appreciation that none of them conform to a pre-arranged ‘form’. Hill knows that fugal writing is not the adaptation of a ‘form’ or even ‘structure’: it is a developmental texture, which takes its shape entirely from within the subject itself.
One of the great joys of Hill’s playing is that, time and again, one can identify those aspects of the Fugue in question wherein he has ascertained (almost as he plays the music) the nature and ‘shape’ of the overall composition as it evolves, naturally, from within his willing hands, curbed and directed by his own creative intelligence.
In other words, and without falling into myriad levels of hyperbole, this is exceptionally fine Bach playing, without mannerisms; it is scholarly and intelligent at the same time and has instinct to poetic feeling. In those very few occasions where Hill departs from accepted readings – as in the retained C minor chord at the end of the Fugue in that key – one cannot but be convinced that he is right. I regard this kind of Bach playing as immensely satisfying, and the recording quality is fine. Hill also contributes an excellent booklet note. This is an impressive release and I look forward to Hill recording Book I.