International Piano Festival Singapore
SOTA Concert Hall
21 June 2013)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 24 June 2013 with the title "Bach with pizzazz".
The thought of J.S.Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, frequent subjects of piano examinations and competitions, often sends young people recoiling with horror and into post-traumatic stress with the memory of futile music lessons and the inevitable knuckle-rapping. Thus the notion of sitting through 24 of these in a single concert is a daunting prospect, sure recipe for tedium and indigestion.
Or so we thought. Bach specialists on the piano like Angela Hewitt and Andras Schiff have made it a life mission to perform both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier en bloc to adoring devotees worldwide. And so has debutant to the Singapore International Piano Festival, the South Africa-born and London-based pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar, who offered the entire First Book in one sitting.
Each book begins with a paired Prelude and Fugue in sunny C major, and works its way through alternating major and minor keys by ascending a semitone with each number, and closing in the sombre key of B minor. The first Prelude is the most familiar, a play on the simple C major triad. Yet when Pienaar played, it sounded radically different. Absurdly fast was the first thought that came to mind.
However it is known that Bach left no tempo or dynamic markings, thus allowing the performer the freest rein to indulge in whatever fancies. Clearly this was the invitation to an account that is unencumbered by convention or tradition, one that assailed and piqued the senses. Like the late Glenn Gould before him, Pienaar was determined to make the listener hear with different ears.
And it worked, largely because he is a sensitive soul allied with the keenest sense of imagination. Without going into the minutiae of each piece, the set was delivered as a breezy whole that kept one riveted throughout. The contrapuntal playing was projected with utter clarity. Nothing sounded preserved or pre-cooked, and he rarely applied the same seasonings to each piece.
Varying the tonal palette, he could make the piano sound as light as a harpsichord in the fast toccata-like preludes. Applying more pedal, he also created organ-like sonorities for the slower fugues, and because the piano was foreign to Bach’s era, each number became a transcription freshly minted.
As to the various moods conjured up in the evening, there was a cornucopia’s worth. Moody elegies alternated with joyous and energised dances, and the improvisatory feel applied to many of the pieces gave the uncanny impression of a jazzman at work. Whoever thought that of crusty old Papa Johann Sebastian?
Pienaar’s return with the Second Book of the WTC 48 is keenly awaited.