BACH Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I • Abdel Rahman El Bacha (pn) • TRITON 00077 (2 SACDs: 111:24)
Except for a folded insert page in English, which appears to be an afterthought, everything printed on the back plate of the jewel case and in the accompanying booklet is in Japanese. What I think I discovered is that Triton is a label unto itself as well as one under which a number of other recording companies press their discs. Thus, you will find listings under Triton proper asRead more well as Triton (France), Triton (Russian Disc), and Triton (Octavia). Or, I could have it exactly backwards, meaning that in the case of the present album “Made by Octavia Records, Inc, Japan” indicates that Triton proper is the recording source and that Octavia simply manufactured the discs. While I’m not able to settle the question of “recorded by” vs. “manufactured by,” I can definitively tell you that Abdel Rahman El Bacha was recorded in this Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier between October 29 and November 2, 2010, at Chichibu Muse Park in Saitama, Japan, and that for these sessions he played a C. Bechstein piano, model number unidentified. Incidentally, I was momentarily thrown by the appearance of this album which, in logo and design, bears a striking resemblance to the Exton brand, also, if I’m not mistaken, another high-end Japanese record label. Whether there’s any connection between the two I don’t know.
Abdel Rahman El Bacha is not an artist I’d previously encountered on disc before, though for some reason the name sounded familiar to me. Digging through the Fanfare Archive, I found a single entry by Leslie Gerber in 14:1, dating back to 1990, in which he was somewhat dismissive of the pianist in a recording of Beethoven sonatas.
El Bacha (b. 1958) is a native of Beirut, Lebanon. After early study in the country, he traveled to France to continue his training under Marguerite Long and Jacques Février. He was then granted a scholarship to further his studies at the Paris Conservatory. Awards and concert engagements followed. El Bacha has maintained dual Franco-Lebanese citizenship since 1981 and currently resides near Paris. Though he has acquired an impressive repertoire, has made a number of recordings for various labels, and has appeared in concert at leading international venues, he has not thus far attained celebrity status or become a household name. That may change if this new Triton release receives the circulation it deserves.
The first thing I noticed, and really liked, about El Bacha’s Bach is that he doesn’t shy away from playing his piano as a piano. He takes full advantage of the instrument’s tonal properties and dynamic capabilities, swelling from p to mf or from mf to f, but without swooning and always in a way that the music seems to call for and that sounds natural and right. Dynamic shading is used, not as an expressive device that ends up exaggerating, italicizing, or romanticizing Bach’s preludes and fugues, but for the musical, one might say, tactical, purpose of shifting the ear’s focus onto passing linear events of importance. An early example occurs at :42 (mm. 23-24) in the C-Minor Prelude, where El Bacha’s slight dynamic increase in the right hand over the left calls attention to the presence of a melodic sequence at the heart of the piece that is often otherwise heard as a velocity exercise on a broken chord progression.
In the rhythmic dimension, El Bacha also employs shifting emphases to alter perception of regularity and beat. No better example of this occurs than in the very opening C-Major Prelude, another study in broken chord progression and rhythmic constancy. But what would happen if periodically you shifted the emphasis away from the eighth-note downbeat of each grouping of six sixteenth notes by placing a slight agogic accent on the third sixteenth (the top note) of each group? You would get a pattern the ear perceives as sextuples. El Bacha does this, not consistently throughout, but enough in alternation with the more expected pattern so that this simple, almost hackneyed prelude comes alive in an entirely new way.
Yet another thing that impresses me about El Bacha is that he doesn’t try to mimic or out-Gould Glenn Gould. For the most part, El Bacha adopts a legato approach to tone and touch so that the keyboard needs no humming vocalization to help it sing. Moreover, El Bacha voices the fugues so clearly they become almost visual; it’s like seeing the lines dancing in the air before your eyes. And finally, where and when appropriate, as at cadential flourishes, El Bacha provides some very lovely and imaginative embellishments of his own devising.
Supported by a laser-sharp (no pun intended), pure recording that neither adds nor subtracts anything from the sound of El Bacha’s instrument, this now has to be, in my opinion, one of the very best piano versions of Bach’s WTC available. I’ve accorded Craig Sheppard’s WTC high marks in these pages, but he didn’t enjoy the exceptional recording Triton has given El Bacha. Angela Hewitt, Till Fellner, and András Schiff have also been favorites, but I think they will now have to cede pride of place to this new El Bacha version. This urgent recommendation also comes with the hope that a Book II from El Bacha and Triton is in the offing.