Wednesday 4 March 2015

Book 1 of Bach's 48 from Kimiko Ishizaka

Bach Well-tempered Clavier (Das wohltempierte Klavier); Kimiko Ishizaka; Navona Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 24 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Clarity, structure and involving playing in this new account of Bach's keyboard epic

I heard Kimiko Ishizaka playing Book 1 of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier (Das wohltempierte Klavier) in 2013 and was impressed with her command of Bach's music on a modern piano. Ishizaka is a great devotee of open-source and has been releasing recordings via her website for sometime, but she has now committed Book 1 of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier to disc on the Navona Records label, though the recording will eventually be available open-source too. (The video at the foot of this review, after the break, is exclusive to Planet Hugill during the recording's initial release month)

Kimiko Ishizaka
Kimiko Ishizaka
JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was probably not written with the idea of public performance. He assembled the first volume in 1720 and it circulated in manuscript, presumably with the idea of personal performance, though many of the pieces are technically challenging. Bach's espousal of all the chromatic keys implies that he was promoting some sort of equal temperament, certainly some of the pieces would sound very odd played on harpsichords in the temperaments then in use. It is this aspect which very much makes the piece appeal to piano players, along with it being one of the icons of the keyboard literature. Bach was very much writing in the style of the day but taking an academic teaching genre and turning it into something completely new (in just the way that his Passions take the existing genre and revolutionise it).

Bach in 1720 he was certainly writing for harpsichord or clavichord rather than piano and the problem for contemporary pianists is how to address that. Ishizaka plays a modern grand, and does not shy away from using it to the full. But she completely eschews the use of the pedal. To a certain extent there is a sense of historicism here; though she still uses techniques which would be alien to a harpsichordist, we rarely get a true 19th century pianistic legato. And the dynamics are mainly terraced, with no bulges.

German-based Japanese pianist Kimiko Ishizaka has been concentrating on the music of Bach since 2009 when she first started studying the Goldberg Variations. This was a study which grew into the Open Goldberg Variations Project in 2012 when her recording was sponsored by over 400 fans and the recording released on-line. She has since been performing Bach's Forty-Eight and in 2014 again turned to crowd-funding to finance this recording and ultimately over 900 people supported it.

The playing here is very much about the fingers, with a firmness and dexterity imbuing all of the music. All the passage work is crisp and even, beautifully articulated with an admirable steadiness though clearly played with strength. This is not a prissy performance. Ishizaka seems to have a very strong yet subtle touch, and she does not shy away from volume when called for.

Her approach brings clarity to the more complex of Bach's textures with the fugues in particular benefiting, without ever seeming over done. You can hear the fugue subjects and Bach's treatment of them, but they never leap out at you in the way they can in some performances. Most importantly, there is no aural mush, this is a series of intertwining lines.

The sound world can be very austere, but she also has a very poetic touch, and seems to have a wide variety of colours at her finger tips. She combines this with a wonderful feeling for the structure and line of Bach's pieces, bringing out the architectonic feeling of the fugues. There is another feeling running through the music as well. The faster movements are often quite perky, and where the rhythms suggest it she really makes the music dance. I was constantly delighted to discover how dance-based much of this music can be.

Generally tempi were steady, with a copious use of rubato in the preludes. Bach's use of unequal bars and other devices has led her towards a freedom which could almost have been improvising. The preludes really were a free form introductions which contrasted strongly with the more architectonic features of the fugues. But tempi are only steady because Ishizaka wishes them and in some she shows enormous technical capabilities at speeds suitably fast and furious.

But this is not an academic disc, there is a strong sense of feeling and I find the results very appealing. For all the precise crispness of Ishizaka's playing, I also find it very involving. Some performances of Bach's Forty-Eight I want to dip in and out of, but here I was happy listening from beginning to end. I have to confess that the first time I played the music, I accidentally had my mp3 player on shuffle, it was a fascinating and illuminating experience, hearing the music in new and interesting combinations!

The CD is released on Navona Records, on 10 March 2015, with the Creative Commons Zero, public domain release planned for March 24 on

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Das wohltempierte Klavier (Book 1)
Kimiko Ishizaka (piano)
Recorded at at Teldex Studio in Berlin, Germany, July 2014
NAVONA RECORDS NV5993 2CD's [00:55, 00:55]
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