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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das Wohltemperierte Klavier: Books I and II [235:55]
Zhu Xiao-Mei (piano)
rec. April-May 2009, Temple Notre Dame du Secours, Paris, (Book 1); April 2007, Ferne de Villefavard (Book 2)
MIRARE MIR 235 [4 CDs: 51:08 + 51:39 + 62:19 + 70:49]

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to review this four-CD set of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier. Chinese pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei was unknown to me until last year when I heard an excellent CD (INA Mémoire - Vive IMV 019) of her playing a selection of keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. In fact, I was so impressed, I sought out her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Mandala 4950); again I was not disappointed.
These sets of the Well-Tempered Clavier have been issued before, separately: Book II in 2008, and Book I in 2011. It is good to have them brought together under one roof in this four-CD package. The catalogue is awash with recordings of this ‘Old Testament’ of the piano repertoire, and Zhu Xiao-Mei is up against some fierce competition. Some of the most notable versions I enjoy are by Schiff (ECM), Hewitt (Hyperion second recording), Gould, Nikolayeva, Tureck, Richter and Koroliov - all pianists who have established distinguished Bach credentials.
Zhu Xiao-Mei was born in Shanghai in 1949. Her musical studies at the Peking Conservatory were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, in which she was an active participant. As a result, she was sent to a re-education camp on the borders of Inner Mongolia for five years. Whilst there she was forbidden to play the piano. She managed to obtain a copy of Book I of the WTC and copied it out by hand to share with her colleagues, making sure she was not caught. Interestingly, a page of this hand-written copy, which she has always kept, adorns the booklet of this collection. This labour of love and necessity, gave her the advantage of knowing these works inside out. After her stint in the camp, she resumed her studies. She recalls the events of her life in an interesting bookThe Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations’ (Amazon Crossing: 2012). Her repertoire now consists of works by Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Bach. As well as giving concerts, she teaches in Paris, a city she has now made her home.  

The notes contain two interviews she did with Michel Mollard, one for each of the two books. Here she sets out her stall. She regards these works as a Bible ‘which is more admired than loved, more revered than listened to … not very often played in concert and remains little-known to the general listener’. She wants to transform people’s misconceptions about the music as being intellectual, unapproachable and uncompromising. She also says that these recordings are a fulfillment of a long-held dream. It is clear that she loves Bach’s music and wants to share the experience, bringing it into people’s lives. Curiously, she recorded Book II first, maintaining that it has always been overshadowed by Book I. I have always preferred the second book, finding it richer and more adventurous. 

So, what does she bring to this music? It is evident that Xiao-Mei has an impeccable technique, and an unerring sense of rhythm. Phrases are nicely shaped, and rubato is contained. Never stiff or pedantic, there is an element of spontaneity throughout. The playing is neither self-indulgent nor pretentious in any way. She has a good sense of style and structure. Whilst there is dynamic sensitivity, she does not display quite the full range of dynamic contrast that we hear from Gould, Tureck or Richter. Yet there is beauty of sound, with judicious use of pedal aiding the projection of a varied palette of tonal colour. In Book I No. 4 in C sharp minor (BWV 489) and No. 8 in E flat minor (BWV 853), phrases are well-shaped and effectively articulated. There’s also an almost understated pianism which calls to mind Edwin Fischer’s traversal.
Like all distinguished Bach players, she brings out the inner voices. In the sometimes dense polyphony, she teases out the contrapuntal strands, highlighting the character of the different voices. An example can be found in the complex Fugue No. 22 (BWV891) Book II. The flow is kept going with a positive sense of direction. The listener is carried along by the narrative, which never seems to sag - a problem I find on occasion with the second Hewitt recording for Hyperion. Then there’s the way she points the bass lines to underpin the harmonic structure. With Xiao-Mei you discern a sense of exploration and rediscovery.
These recordings have taken me on a journey. It has been a pleasure to listen and to experience these works being recreated. These are performances in which the true splendour of Bach’s opus is fully realized. Each book was recorded in a different venue, but any difference in sound quality is negligible. Xiao-Mei uses a Steinway. Schiff’s second recording on ECM has the edge, with a much brighter sound which yields slightly more clarity. His would still be my first choice in these works.
Stephen Greenbank