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Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier / Zhu Xiao-Mei

Bach / Xiao-mei
Release Date: 01/14/2014 
Label:  Mirare   Catalog #: 235   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Xiao-Mei Zhu
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier Zhu Xiao-Mei (pn) MIRARE 235 (4 CDs: 236:00)

Chinese pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei has focused upon the music of Bach lately, and now she has released this complete set of the oft-recorded Well-Tempered Clavier on four discs. These were done over the span of several years, first in 2007, and Book 1 was released a couple of years ago. Fellow reviewer Scott Noriega gave it a nice thumbs up in his review ( Read more style="font-style:italic">Fanfare 34:2 from 2010) for its delicacy and clarity. The addition of Book 2 completes the entire work, and with this apparently a life-long dream of Zhu has been achieved, according to her interview that comprises the booklet notes.

Given that there are numerous examples of this comprehensive pedagogical work out there, including a new recording on the harpsichord by Christophe Rousset reviewed by yours truly in this same issue, it would seem that there is little to add to the verbiage already out there on the works themselves. The old (dare I say ancient now) model by Glenn Gould lies at the foundation of all of these modern piano performances, but Bach’s exploration of the genre prelude and fugue and his use of all of the keys, even the gnarly ones, is extremely adaptable, being easily accommodated to whatever keyboard instrument one might choose. I do personally feel that they sound best on the harpsichord, but the modern piano does give them considerable dramatic depth (if done without too much over-interpretation or bombast). The application of rubato is especially appropriate to the modern instrument, something that Gould’s original performances did achieve, no matter what one thinks of his playing. Zhu also uses this to created varying moods that seem to change from movement to movement. These range from the innocence of the first fugue in Book 1 (in the simplest neutral key of C major) to the tortuous lines of the C?-Major Fugue that seem to tumble over each other in a mad dash of continuous chromaticism in Book 2. Zhu is very technical, has a good sense of phrasing, and seems to enjoy bringing out the finer nuances of pieces that, under lesser hands, might have degenerated into mere exercises. While I’m not convinced of her suggestion that Bach was Chinese (no doubt said tongue in cheek), she does a good service to both students and listeners who might like these works on the modern instrument. There are, of course, lots of others out there for the purists among you, and there are those who will always regard Gould’s renditions as saintly, but these really ought to be given a listen for their finely-tuned renditions (pun intended).

FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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Works on This Recording

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846-869 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Xiao-Mei Zhu (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1722; Cöthen, Germany 
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, BWV 870-893 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Xiao-Mei Zhu (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1738-1742; Leipzig, Germany 

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