"She plays with immense delicacy but with a myriad of hues and textures."
"The first thing I noticed about the playing of Schaghajegh Nosrati on this new recording of Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, was her exceptional fineness of touch. She plays with immense delicacy but with a myriad of hues and textures. Scarcely a note is a routine matter of just striking a key. In the long stretch of preludes and fugues such variety and imagination are most welcome. There is nothing, even in the biggest, most severe fugues, of the stodgy or excessively heavy about her playing.
The second thing I noticed is related to this issue of fine touch since it is that delicacy that enables Nosrati to make all of this music really dance. Not just the more obvious dance derived preludes either. Every texture is illuminated from within with a sensitivity to rhythm in way that often gets overlooked. Have a listen to her choreographing of the C sharp minor prelude to hear what I mean.
The Well-Tempered Clavier hasn’t had the happiest history on record with many more recordings stumbling than succeeding in finding a satisfying way of traversing its great expanse. There is an argument to made against seeing it as a work to be performed in its entirety. That my standby recording is the deeply flawed version by Glenn Gould illustrates the difficulties involved in catching such a multifarious work in the studio. Part of the issue is how to sustain interest over 100 minutes largely consisting of fugues. This is where issues of touch and a sensitivity to things like dance rhythms matter. Similarly, overly serious approaches tend to sink under the weight of their own earnestness. It is probably not accidental that one of the most successful piano versions in recent years, by Anderszewski, consists of excerpts rather an entire book (in that case Book 2 rather than Book 1 as here)
This recording is dedicated to András Schiff and it isn’t hard to hear that he and Nosrati are kindred spirits. In her self-penned notes, Nosrati observes the importance of removing the ego from performances to stop it getting in the way of the music. Much though I admire Schiff, I do find him sometimes so concerned with this matter than he can tend toward excessive sobriety. I, for one, was glad that Nosrati didn’t entirely succeed in submerging her ego! There is a liveliness and excitability to her music making – try the E minor prelude and fugue – that seem to be her bringing the best of her musical personality to the notes of the score.
The bottom line with any recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier is how good is the performer at playing fugues. There is a danger here that I have created an impression in the reader’s mind of a flighty, lightweight pianist. Nosrati’s touch may be gentle but she lacks nothing in terms of weight when the complex fugal textures require it. There is a diamond sharp intelligence at work, balancing the various lines of each fugue to present the best view to the listener. All of those qualities of refinement and imagination are put devotedly to the service of the music. One of her finest abilities is to create a sense of natural flow where others – even sometimes people like Hewitt and Gould – get a little bogged down in the technical matters of the fugues.
Whilst counterbalancing any risk that Nosrati’s Bach is seen as lacking seriousness, I want to be sure that the essential quality of this set shines through in this review and that quality is joy. If I single out the G major fugue for special mention, it is one delight amongst many. It is neither garish nor sensational playing but it hums with a joie de vivre that is present even in the darkest moments of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach’s emotional universe was, I believe, framed by his faith so that even the moments of greatest pain – and the B flat minor and B minor preludes and fugues emerge out of the same emotional spaces as the Passions – there is a pulse of life which the great Bach performers – from Edwin Fischer to Kolesnikov- capture.
There have been some good recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier recently – I think of versions by Papastefanou and Ugorskaja – but none anywhere near as good as this. Sometimes the word consistency is used in reviews to damn with faint praise but when the level of creative response is as consistently high as with Nosrati then it is not meant to signal average music making but rather a distinctively high standard. The test for any set of a complete book of the Well Tempered Clavier is does it add up to an entire work and Nosrati passes that listening test cum laude. I mentioned the word joy earlier and such are the joys of listening to these accounts that I found myself unable to resist one prelude more, just one more fugue.
Nosrati plays a nutty toned Bechstein, whose instruments seem particularly well suited to Bach as evidenced by Bindman’s recent beautifully turned account of the keyboard partitas. The sound is natural and unobtrusive - in other words ideally suited to Nosrati’s type of artistry.
After getting to know this recording of Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier, I wondered if I had made a serious omission in overlooking Nosrati but in delving into her 2019 recording of the Partitas I found good but not indispensable Bach. I still intend to get to know her Art of Fugue which was well received in the pages of this site. Artists mature and develop and the pianist on this new recording is on a different level to 2019. I hope and presume that she will be setting down Book 2 – if she hasn’t already done so. If it is as good as this account of Book One then it will be the kind of set upon which reputations are built."