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BACH: Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Teil I
Præludien und Fugen BWV 846-869

Daniel-Ben Pienaar

Recorded in July 2003 | Time 1:49:19 | Cover Image by Silja Holm
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From the liner notes:
The book shows Bach at once at his most systematic and at his most unpredictable and playful. In total one can only describe it as an heroic endeavour – here Bach strives for variety-for-the-sake-of-variety in the highest sense. No genre or style is left unexamined, no keyboard instrument or ensemble texture not recalled in some sense or other.—DBP
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Nalen Anthoni, Gramophone July 2004
Three pianists, three sets of ideas about Das Wohltemperierte Klavier; and though echoes of their predecessors from Edwin Fischer to Rosalyn Tureck are heard, these musicians follow their particular dictates through distinctive sound worlds. Daniel-Ben Pienaar is boldly etched with little hall ambience. At the other extreme is Michael Levinas in a reverberant setting that is suspiciously synthetic because piano tone is variable and doesn't always ring true. Till Fellner is equably balanced, in an acoustic that has the right degree of space.
With the exception of four pieces - two in each book - Bach didn't mark tempi, and dynamics are not specified at all. He left these matters to performers, and just how their judgements can influence the end result may be heard in the F minor Fugue, Book 1. There are three different views of this piece yet all are valid. Fellner is subdued and contemplative yet smoothly mobile, Levinas is slow and grand, and Pienaar swift, bright and crisp. They all use the sustaining pedal, Levinas for an unusual purpose. He believes in the need for 'an extremely round touch contrary to the more common conception of Bach interpretation (because) the roundness of sound creates the spatial feeling and gives the instrument an almost vocal emotion'. In this instance thickened lines compromise a good conception; and a poor conception spoils the C minor Prelude. Levinas is fast and unsubtle, his prominent pedalling turning the music into a garbled mess.
Fellner is not given to extremes. His playing has a sense of devotional simplicity, notably so in the G minor and A flat major Preludes. He pedals to maintain continuity without altering tonal character and there is a gently pulsing lyricism in his approach to these pieces. He doesn't undermine established conventions but his quiet eloquence gives them a voice of his own. The downside is that so effortless a flow can also turn into a drone, as it does in the A minor Fugue.
Pienaar clarifies the subject matter in greater detail and he builds to a taut climax. It is one of the many highlights in his set that includes a magnificently profiled F sharp minor Fugue, an E flat major Prelude where unsynchronised hands are used to enhance the melody of the chorale section, and an audacious altered version of its companion Fugue. Pienaar finds in this piece 'a hint of the 4ft registration of the high flutes'. So he plays it an octave higher than written, and an impression of tootling flutes is heard in the upper reaches of the piano.
None of the musicians evades responsibility for singularity by hiding behind the template of 'this is how it was performed'. Instead, they tackle the pertinent question, 'how might it be performed?' Levinas makes valuable suggestions and the 'vocal emotion' he aims for is heard in a number of Preludes though the wash of sound often imparts a dreamy quality that tends to blunt individual character. He can also be crassly insensitive: other examples of this puzzling aberration are the unremittingly loud performances of the C major Prelude and E minor Fugue, both of Book 2.
Fellner is never harsh and his impeccably voiced playing handsomely serves interpretations that generally circumspect if occasionally a tad nondescript. Pienaar doesn't allow the odd slight insecurity to stop him from throwing down the gauntlet. More often than not, he offers answers that push the music to the brink though the bounds of credibility aren't breached. His is a tough but thought-provoking opinion that readers are urged to listen to and ponder."

Jed Distler, BBC Music Magazine February 2004
Daniel-Ben Pienaar’s recording of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, together with his eloquent booklet notes, leaves no doubt that this South African-born pianist is a thinking virtuoso. In the company of such contrasting practitioners as Edwin Fischer, Samuel Feinberg, Sviatoslav Richter and Glenn Gould, he seems determined to leave his own mark on this music. Gould’s speedy, skeletal style informs Pienaar’s iconoclastic, hard-nosed sprint through the D minor and F minor Fugues as well as the G major and A-flat major Preludes. Some slower selections, by contrast, like the F sharp minor Fugue, evoke Richter's unadorned severity, but without that master’s pellucid tone. Yet the D-sharp minor, A major. and B minor Prelude and Fugue pairs stand out for their low-key grace and a natural sense of ebb and flow absent from the D major's brisk aggression. Whether Pienaar’s transposing the C-sharp minor Prelude down the octave or moving the E-flat Fugue an octave higher help or hinder the music is for listeners to decide.
The recording’s dry ambience yields to the sonic warmth and immediacy of Angela Hewitt’s Hyperion edition and the dynamic impact of Evgeni Koroliov’s recording on Tacet. What is more, these two pianists are more aware of Bach’s melodic discourse and rhythmic underpinnings rooted in dance. It’s clear, though, that Pienaar offers enough food for thought to consider his Book I as a viable supplementary edition.

Robert Haskins, American Record Guide April 2004
A mixed bag. Pienaar is a young South African who trained in England. He's not afraid to give a new spin on some familiar music, but somehow the results don't always satisfy. Let me concentrate on his considerable assets, though. He's a thoughtful pianist with a fine technique and beautiful tonal variety. One fabulous moment is his performance of the F-minor Prelude: he plays it with a pale, almost lifeless tone and a very slow tempo. At the other side of the spectrum is his very humorous performance of the A-major Fugue. The first note is given a sharp, short attack, and the remainder of the subject prances stealthily upward like a cat on the prowl. Since he takes a quick tempo, the sudden change to 16th notes midway has a breathtaking effect. In the D-sharp minor Prelude, he takes a no-nonsense, straightforward, but very expressive tack, and it works very well. But sometimes he takes risks that don't pay off: the D-minor Fugue sounds rather absent-minded and incoherent, and the speedy tempo doesn't do the music any favors. Also, messing around with the octave assignments (an octave lower for the C-sharp minor Prelude, an octave higher for the E-flat Fugue) sounds old-fashioned nowadays. My favorite recent WTC I on piano is probably a tie between Schepkin on Ongaku (Jan/Feb 2000) and Ivo Janssen on Void (Nov/Dec 2003). I'd like to hear Pienaar in some traditional repertoire to hear if he takes similar liberties there.
Photo of Daniel-Ben Pienaar
DANIEL-BEN PIENAAR was born in South Africa. He made his debut there at the age of fourteen, playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E-flat. After winning his country’s National Youth Music Competition and University of South Africa Overseas Music Scholarship, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London where he won the Queen’s Commendation 1997, and held the Hodgson Fellowship in 1997/8.

Performances include appearances at the State Theatre, the Nico Malan Theatre and the National Arts Festival in South Africa, debuts in America (including the Goldberg Variations) and Japan (including the four Chopin ballades), the Schumann concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and the Stravinsky concerto at the RNCM. In 2000 he played the complete cycle of Mozart’s eighteen piano sonatas at the Duke’s Hall in London, and later the same year the complete set of six keyboard Partitas by Bach.

With violinist Narimichi Kawabata, Daniel-Ben has performed at many of Japan’s most prestigious venues and also at the Wigmore Hall in London. A CD of Chopin piano works was released for Victor Japan (JVC) in early 2004, and more recently a collection of the complete keyboard music of Gibbons on the Deux-Elles label.