“Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland”,
Excerpts from the WTC: Bk.I & Chorales,
ZZT 090104 (65:40)
Great music intelligently put together and terrifically played; the latest Bach recording on the ZigZag Territories label was all but assured a spot among my favorite recordings of that year*. If Edna Stern, a Krystian Zimerman and Leon Fleisher student, only played a selection of Preludes and Fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier, and even if she played them as well as she does on “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland”, the disc might have gotten a spin, very favorable notice, and slipped into the recesses of my Bach saturated mind.
But sending three Prelude & Fugue pairs into the race, preceded by a transcribed Bach chorale each (one of these four Chorale/Prelude packages comes with Brahms’ Bach-like op.122 no.5, instead), lifts this release well above the pack of Bach-on-the-Piano releases and recitals. “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” starts with the eponymous chorale (BWV 659) in Busoni’s transcription. Stern’s idea is treating Bach as a vocal and orchestral composer which, apart from justification for playing harpsichord works on the piano (as if any was still—or again—necessary), frees her to explore all the advantages of the piano’s range of shades and colors, rather than treating it ‘harpsichordesque’. Might as well, when the result is Bach in such luxuriant sound, indulgent in beauty, yet never fussy.
Consciously working her way from C minor to E-flat major, she not only excels in “Schmuecke dich O liebe Seele” (Brahms), Ich ruf’zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639 from Das Orgelbüchlein Part 3, trans. Busoni), and “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 645 from Cantata BWV 140, trans. Busoni), but several Fugues and especially Preludes, too. BWV 855 in E minor, 851 in D minor, and 866 B-flat Major are gorgeous renditions that would do any pianist proud. With such a very different concept and content than Alexandre Tharaud’s Concertos italiens—my Bach-on-Piano CD of choice above all others—it’s not surprising that Mlle. Stern’s performance appeals in dissimilar ways. More something for the mind and reflection rather than the happily emotional recital of the Frenchman, and doubtlessly a disc any Bach lover would find him- or herself marveling at.
* And indeed, this disc popped up on my "Best of 2009" List. This longer version of the review initially appeared on WETA.