A veritable Mo Farah of the keyboard, pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar has a technique at once athletic and graceful. From the starting block on he ensures that this Bach marathon will be nothing if not distinctive. His virtuoso playing of the opening C major Prelude recalls the bravura warm-up exercises from which the genre evolved - a far cry from the reverential, romanticized readings often preferred by pianists. Pienaar alludes throughout to Baroque style with transparent textures and subtly etched contrapuntal lines. Yet he also takes liberties with tempo and expression, exploiting the tonal and dynamic potential of the piano to paint the sundry affects of different keys, and to highlight rhetorical gestures and dramatic contrasts.
Despite the dizzying virtuosity, the playing is never heavy-handed; Pienaar floats across the keyboard realising Bach's fiddly passagework and intricate traceries with exquisite finesse. Sample, for instance, the Preludes in G and B-flat major from Book 1, or the D minor from Book 2 for his breathtaking dexterity, while the B major Prelude BWV868 and the E major BWV878 epitomise his luminous, delicate sound. Rhythms dance and swing (as in the nimble caprioles of the E-flat Prelude, or the swaggering dotted rhythms of the E minor Fugue, both from Book 2), and an unbridled energy permeates. Yet there is more here than mere pyrotechnics: Pienaar shades the glimmering trills of the G minor Prelude BWV861 with a muted melancholy; the B-flat minor pair BWV867 is hauntingly poignant, and there's veiled mystery in both the C-sharp major and minor Preludes from Book 2 - a heartfelt response to the music's underlying spirituality. These are, in short, fresh, spontaneous, original readings that shed new light on the keyboard player's Bible.
- Kate Bolton
Live, fast-fingered, athletic readings, yet they are never glib or superficial. Pienaar finds plenty of room for flexible tempi and he uses the tonal palette of the piano with real intelligence.
- Andrew McGregor
Sometimes annoying, often astonishing, never indifferent.... Pienaar’s radical reading of The Well-Tempered Clavier.... ten years have not mellowed Pienaar, on the contrary, the remake [of Book 1] is even more iconoclastic than [the previous 2003 version].... one of the most challenging readings of the last twenty years.
It is pretty evident that Daniel-Ben Pienaar has amassed an outstanding discography. With recordings of the complete Mozart Sonatas, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a disc [sic] of Orlando Gibbons already under his belt, and a traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in the pipeline, the omens look good....
I have to say from the outset that this is one of the most impressive cycles that I have ever heard. Throughout, Pienaar shows great musical integrity and intelligence. The general tenor of his performances is spontaneity and an improvisatory feel. With speeds generally brisk, he doesn’t linger or allow the music to lapse into repetitive tedium. Each prelude and fugue is fresh, adventurous and well-characterized with an innate sense of style. Vital and immediate, each is underpinned and energized with rhythmic thrust.
Contrapuntal lines are well-defined. Phrasing is well judged, and dynamics suitably varied. With sparing use of pedal, lines are never smudged, the pianist achieving luminosity in the contrapuntal strands and harmonic progressions. All ornamentation is tastefully executed. Pienaar explores the full range of the piano’s potential.
His fabulous technique is not showy in any way, but put to the service of the music....
With so much competition out there, this recording has the advantage that the pianist has something new to say about these works....
For those coming to these works for the first time, this set will provide an ideal introduction. To those who consider the Well-Tempered Clavier as a sequence of dry, academic exercises, Pienaar’s traversal will be a revelation.
- Stephen Greenbank
Systematicsch aufgereight wie in einem Herbarium liegen die Tonarten in Johann Sebasian Bachs ‘Wohltemperiertem Klavier’ vor, jeweils präsentiert durch eine freie Form (Präludium) und eine strenge (Fuge von 3-5 Stimmen).... Dass in der Musik, anders als in der Botanik, aus solch einer systematischen Strenge wieder die lebendigsten Früchte erwaschen können, zeigt der südafrikanische, in London lebende Pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar. Seine – weder historisierende noch allzu romantisch verbreiternde – Einspielung fürht uns mit elegantem Stilempfinden und zyklisch verstanden durch einen Kosmos musikalischer Einfälle. So wundert es nicht, dass schon Beethoven bekannte, Bachs pädagogische Klaviersammlung sei das beste Mittel – gegen kompositorische Schreibhemmungen.
Forty Eight Thrills
Pianist Daniel Ben-Pienaar's new recording of Bach's Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues on the Avie label. He first recorded them a decade ago at the start of his career, but did not then issue Book II which has been remastered for the present four-disc set. Book I was recorded fresh this year and presents a cooler, more crystal ambience than the comparatively subdued Book II. Book I begins without drawing great attention to itself. [Track] No1 is quick (but not the quickest) and glistens like snow while No3, the C minor Prelude, is decidedly slow. This is deceptive as Pienaar explodes into the D major and minor sets faster than a person can think and with extraordinary fluency and precision. His speed is thrilling and matched among his skills with an ability to create atmosphere and touch differently each Prelude and Fugue. Book I's A minor pair has organ tone. The nearby B flat minor recalls the Passion strings and continuo in rich, bitter, tortured harmonies. It's a delightful account. Pienaar will surely be taking more time off lecturing at the Royal Academy this year.
- Rick Jones