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Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier / Gianluca Luisi

Bach,J.s. / Luisi
Release Date: 05/25/2010 
Label:  Centaur Records   Catalog #: 3040/3   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Gianluca Luisi
Number of Discs: 4 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2 Gianluca Luisi (pn) CENTAUR 3040-43 (4 CDs: 265:10)

Hans von Bülow (1830–94), the great German pianist and conductor who led the premiere of Tristan und Isolde and was one of the first pianists to give marathon concerts of the complete 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven, referring to them as the “New Testament of Music,” once dubbed the Read more style="font-style:italic">Well-Tempered Clavier the “Old Testament of Music.” Bach’s magnum opus is certainly one of the cornerstones of Western musical literature, one that has influenced every composer from Chopin and Liszt to Busoni and Shostakovich. It is in all respects one of the most formidable musical works with which keyboardists must eventually come to terms. Its challenges are twofold: the diversity that exists within its 48 preludes and fugues makes it difficult to capture all of the separate characters that are presented in each of its individual movements, while its repetitive structure of alternating preludes and fugues often gives it a sameness of sound and texture, especially when performed as a whole.

If there is one strong point to this set in particular, then, it would be the pianist’s ability to provide a good balance between these two inherent qualities. Gianluca Luisi, an Italian pianist who has won prizes in numerous competitions, from the Casella International Competition (second place) to the J. S. Bach International Piano Competition in Saarbrucken (first place), certainly has the mechanical capabilities to handle this music. And there are many fine qualities to his playing here. He has a very unfussy approach, seemingly always looking for the most straightforward way to communicate—just witness the opening pair in C Major that opens the first volume. He graces us with a simple, meditative reading of the prelude, followed by a flowing fugue. The following C-Minor Prelude has a “rightness” to it, sounding much more like the small, quasi-improvisational Italianate toccata that it is. He is also unabashedly a pianist, one who uses small dips in dynamics to push the momentum forward, as he does in the C-Major Fugue in Book 2. An example of the contrast that he creates can be found in the F-Major pair in Book 2, where the calm and serene prelude is followed by a more aggressive, assertive fugue. Luisi’s ability to have fun with this music is also in evidence in places like the C?-Major Fugue in Book 2, where his articulation, which is at once lively and bouncy, creates a sheer sense of joy. He also does a good job of marking out fugal subject entries, without over-emphasizing their importance, as Rosalyn Tureck was sometimes prone to do, allowing one to hear other details in the music, and making for a piece that is more than just a continuous bombardment of thematic entries. With the good comes the bad. Some of the tempos that Luisi occasionally chooses are on the slow side, and sound a bit plodding. Examples are both the E?-Major and A-Major Preludes, both in Book 2, which, though they both have a good sense of articulation, are too slow to portray the intrinsic dance elements. Sometimes the straightforward approach also takes away from the specialness of the music, as in the lost quirky element of the E-Minor Fugue in Book 2.

While there are numerous examples of individual performances of preludes and fugues that I like better than those here—Glenn Gould’s dance-like and simple, fun-spirited account of the F?-Major Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 (Sony 52603), Richter’s live magical, otherworldly C?-Minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 (DG Double 457667), or Rosalyn Tureck’s bold and assertive prelude and slow and serene G?-Minor Fugue from Book 2 (BBC Legends 4116)—these are more than just good, solid performances; these are the kind that one can keep coming back to, ones that will not tire with repeated listening due to their idiosyncrasies. The Well-Tempered Clavier , because it is so very special, has never been a set of pieces of which I would only want to own only one recording, but if I had to, then this set would surely be a contender. The recording has a good, clear, crisp sound, with a not-too-dry acoustic. This is, however, coupled with unbearably translated booklet notes—was the text literally put through a word-for-word translating program? With performances of this caliber, though, the music’s the thing. Recommended.

FANFARE: Scott Noriega
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Works on This Recording

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

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