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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: BACH & DSCH with Bernd Glemser

It’s not a novel concept, surely, but it’s good enough not to need to be: Perform (or in this case, record) Shostakovich’s Bach-inspired Preludes & Fugues from op.87 alternating with Prelude & Fugue pairs from either of Bach’s books of the Well Tempered Clavier. For the purpose of easing a few classically interested, but Shostakovich-resistant, friends and relatives into the music of the great Russian I have recently made a sampler that does just that. A particular arrangement of six Prelude & Fugue pairs—C, G, D and each relative minor—from the WTC II played by Tatiana Nikolayeva (because it was her Bach-playing that inspired Shostkovich to his op.87) and the DSCH played by Keith Jarrett (because his Shostakovich is most Bach-like) come together as a surprisingly homogenous mix where a casual listener might well miss where Bach ends and Shostakovich begins. I was surprised to hear how well it works. More surprised was I when I got Bernd Glemser’s latest disc on Oehms that uses the same concept—and remains strangely pale; awkward even.

Bernd Glemser might be known to the record collector through his many Naxos recordings, especially of Russian repertoire. Or because he is the most winningest piano competition participant; winning top prizes at 17 competitions in a row, alongside colleagues-to-be like Louis Lortie and Ricardo Castro. His awards fill pages of booklet notes, which, after reading, make you wonder why he isn’t better known; why he never attained real international star-pianist status. Perhaps because there is no flashiness to Glemser, who has been a professor of piano since he was 27? Or because of the curse of early Naxos—when, until a few years ago, Naxos and its artists were looked down upon as inherently second rate? As with co-sufferer Idil Biret, I know that his playing can’t account for that relative neglect. (It reminds me of José Serebrier. Few living conductors—certainly not American conductors—come even close to winning as many Grammies, yet, unless you collect Glazunov Symphonies, you’d be excused for never having heard of him.)

Glemser now records for Oehms, a small German label that scrutinizes which artists it picks, and then sticks with them. Their criteria are apparently solely musical, not marketing-based—and their roster includes the singularly unglamorous but highly respected Ivor Bolton, Michael Korstick, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and Bertrand De Billy. This move isn’t going to get Glemser into the pages of the glossy magazines, either, but it’s a step up. CDs of Bach piano transcriptions and Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations were very promising and well received. Now this.

available at Amazon
Bach & DSCH, Preludes & Fugues,
Bernd Glemser
Oehms OC738 [81:11]

For those interested in tonal relationship, Glemser couples a Prelude & Fugue in G (Bach, Bk.1) with its relative minor, e (DSCH), then g♯ (Bach, Bk.2) with its (enharmonic) parallel major A♭ (DSCH), then Bach’s F♯ and its relative minor e♭ (Bk.1) followed by e♭ and D♭ (DSCH), concluding with the latter’s relative minor, b♭ (Bach, Bk.2).

Just why this concept album of Bach and Shostakovich doesn’t take off is difficult to say. Perhaps because some of the Bach (take the g♯ Fugue) is stilted—neither featuring impressive legato qualities nor crisp rhythm? Or perhaps because the juxtaposition just doesn’t quite jibe? The imposing, virtuoso Shostakovich Fugue in D♭ set right before the concluding b♭ Prelude & Fugue seems out of place and gratuitously contrasting. Not surprisingly, I very much like the Shostakovich playing on this disc, but surely this disc wasn’t meant to be attractive just for four Shostakovich Prelude & Fugue pairs.

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