Bach with pizzazz

Concert review in the Straits Times, Singapore

Singapore International Piano Festival, June 2013

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, a recipe for tedium and indigestion.

Or so I thought. Bach specialists on the piano such as 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. When is he coming back?

- Chang Tou Liang

Concert review from Pamela Hickman’s Concert Critique Blog

Eilat Chamber Music Festival, Israel, February 2014

In his piano recital in the Tarshish Hall on February 28th, Daniel-Ben Pienaar played all 24 preludes and fugues of Book 1 of J.S.Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”.... After so many of us have followed the authentic movement’s roller coaster re-education on the subject of Baroque music performance practice, here is a pianist aware of all the performance styles Bach’s music has been through and, refuting none of them, brings his own ideas of playing Bach on the piano to the concert platform. Performing the whole of one book of the WTC would have been unheard of in Bach’s time; Bach wrote the pieces for personal enjoyment and for educational purposes.... Pienaar has made a deep enquiry into the micro and macro of Book 1 of the WTC, has formulated his own ideas on each piece and how they all “stack up”, in his words. Utilizing his superb technique, his fantasy and the possibilities of the modern piano, Daniel-Ben Pienaar takes us on a truly exciting journey through the pieces, showing the uniqueness of each as well as how the pieces can be contrasted with each other. Prelude no 3 in C sharp major, for example, is played with light, buoyant brilliance, its fugue fresh and bold. Following it, Prelude no. 4 in C sharp minor’s mystery unfolds via Bach’s surprising harmonic course, its fugue bathed in a sense of almost religious awe. Prelude no.15 was played a sense of weightlessness, the incredible speed and agility with which the artist took it ruling out neither articulacy or nor direction. The fugue was a celebration of Bach’s literally off-beat rhythmic ideas.... [He used] tiny pauses between pieces or not, using the latter to keep tension high by proceeding directly with no breath between pieces. Listeners were kept at the edge of their seats throughout, finally arriving at Prelude no. 24 in B minor. Here, Pienaar took the listener into both the inner regions of the mind and into the sophistication of Bach’s canonic thinking, then concluding with the mighty 4-voiced B minor fugue (actually marked Largo by Bach), its subject using all 12 semi-tones, a work atonal well before its time, bringing to an end a recital bristling with interest, creativeness and aesthetic beauty.