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One of the finest versions

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Fifteen Two-Part Inventions, BWV 772-786
Fifteen Three-Part Sinfonias, BWV 787-801
Karin Kei Nagano (piano)
rec. July 2016, Studio 12, Radio-Canada, Montréal
ANALEKTA AN28771 [54.15]

Karin Kei Nagano has a strong foundation in music, being the daughter of conductor Kent Nagano and pianist Mari Kodama. This is her solo debut, though she has already recorded for the Anelekta label in chamber versions of Mozart piano concertos with the Cecilia String Quartet.

Such repertoire might be considered a daring move for a first solo release, certainly giving a player nowhere to hide. Nagano has however been playing these Inventionen and Sinfonien since childhood, seeing them as “a fundamental part of my repertoire… It has been my goal to reflect the youthful character of the music and seek to capture the purity and simplicity that are characteristic of a maturing pupil’s interpretation.” In this she succeeds very well indeed, sidestepping the temptation to romanticise these pieces as Simone Dinnerstein tends to (review), and taking a more straightforward but less personalised view of the scores than Andrea Bacchetti (review), who takes a more playful, Glenn Gould-like approach with some nicely improvisatory ornamental flourishes.

Preferences in this regard are always going to be personal, and if you like the non-nonsense approach then you will probably also appreciate Angela Hewitt’s 1994 recording (review), whose timings are more often than not in agreement with Nagano’s. Comparing recordings makes one notice the difference in the order of the pieces, done here according to the 1720 Clavierbüchlein’s symmetrical ascending and descending cycle of keys rather than the more usually heard numerical sequence found in Bach’s 1723 edition of the score. This has its own musical logic, with minor and major keys pairing or reinforcing each other rather than continually alternating.

While finding this warmly expressive and clean recording highly enjoyable, I suspect it won’t be the one for changing anyone’s views on this music being much more than a superb collection of pedagogical works, intended for “the evolving apprenticeship of [Bach’s] pupils and his son, Wilhelm Friedmann.” As ever with Bach, there are moments when the world seems to slow down, such as with the Sinfonias 11 and 9, here following each other on tracks 25 and 26. Nagano plays these with appropriate weight without dipping too far into artificial profundity, taking a slower pace than Angela Hewitt but not really extracting greater meaning from the notes.

If I was still working in a record shop and guiding you towards an ultimate favourite in these piece then I would have to say this is Till Fellner on ECM 2043 for sheer poetry of performance and quality of sound (review), but I’m sure we will be hearing much more from Karin Kei Nagano, and I look very much forward to seeing which direction she takes from here. On its own this is a top quality production and admirable for its imaginative approach to the ordering of the pieces. Check it out if they are missing from your collection, or if the ones you possess are starting to lose their charm.

Dominy Clements


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