The Toccatas - F sharp minor, BWV910; C minor, BWV911;
D, BWV912; D minor, BWV913;
E minor, BWV914; G minor, BWV915; G, BWV916.
Andrea Bacchetti (piano).
Dynamic CD5658 (1 h 20 m)
Website Engineer Matteo Costa.
Dates October 13th, 2009, January 12th, 2010.
Hewitt (Hyperion) CDA67310 (2002, rev. Oct 2002)
Landowska (Pearl) GEM0169 (1936)

Bach's seven Toccatas for solo keyboard are early works that occupy a special place in the composer's output. Although experimental in nature, they have a way of synthesizing opposites into a unity that lies right at the core of Bach's creative mentality. Of course, many of them have 'raw edges', but that is an essential part of their appeal. They are performed and recorded relatively rarely, which makes Andrea Bacchetti's new disc important before the fact.
Unlike so many of Bach's other works in particular genres, these seven Toccatas never formed a unified collection. That gives anyone who performs or records them integrally a considerable freedom of choice with regard to their order. Only two of them are in major keys, which is certainly a critical factor. It is interesting that Bacchetti and Angela Hewitt (in the comparative version listed above) choose very different orders. He starts with the G major and then refreshes the listener's modal palate by placing the D major fifth in the sequence. (Equally, he might well have placed the G major as track 4 and the D major as track 7, so that each half ended more brightly in a major key).
By contrast, Hewitt positions the G major as track 2 and the D major as track 7.

That has a particular advantage because many Bach lovers who know all seven of them feel that the D major is the single greatest one. As the D major is my personal favourite, I was tempted to listen to it first, but I decided to listen to the entire disc in Bacchetti' s order, which works very well. His performance of the D major (in his timing, the second longest), however, caused me considerable concern, so let me explain why before going on to his playing of the other six. His tempo in the opening section is surprisingly deliberate, when it should burst upon the listener like a brilliant firework. Then the fugal 'Allegro' (in quotation marks because Bach omitted tempo indications for this and two other of the work's six subsections) also sounds unduly ponderous. Instead of playing it energetically, it seems as if Bacchetti is standing too close to the music, feels trapped 'inside' it, and is trying to find a way out.
The effect is literal and 'notey', and when he arrives at the culminating gigue fugue (in 6/16 time), one hears every semiquaver (16th note), rather than Bach's clear harmonic rhythm of one or two harmonies per bar. I almost imagined Bacchetti astride a horse that is galumphing over the cobblestones, rather than galloping fleetly across them. The result is effortful in a way that actually belies his technique, which is very dextrous. Happily (with the sole exception of some more 'notiness' in the fast sections of the C minor Toccata), the performances of the other six go much better. Bacchetti's sound is clear, liquescent, judiciously pedalled, and non-aggressive even when energetic. He uses natural, 'continuous' dynamics, with a welcome absence of harpsichord imitation (even though the Toccatas work magnificently on

that instrument, as in the other comparative version of the D major alone, which Wanda Landowska projects with superb flair and rhetoric). Bacchetti plays as if he understands that the 'improvisatory' outbursts and recitative-like sections in which these pieces abound are actually composed by Bach with the utmost precision. It is interesting to compare Bacchetti's complete recording with that of Hewitt.
The present disc was recorded in the Fazioli Concert Hall of Sacile in Italy and, though it is likely that Bacchetti used a Fazioli piano for it, the CD booklet doesn't indicate that explicitly. These days, Hewitt virtually always uses a Fazioli for her recitals and recordings, wherein I have often found their sound to be brittle yet shallow. Of course, individual pianos by the same manufacturer have their own sonority, and in the present recording, even if Bacchetti did use a Fazioli, he gets it to sing more luminously, helped by Dynamic's recorded sound, which is clear yet not too close to the instrument. In my September 2009 review of Bacchetti's excellent Dynamic two-disc set of Bach's C minor Partita and E major French Suite (each of them consisting of short movements), as well as his Two- and Three-part Inventions plus his little Preludes and Fugues, I wrote: 'I began to wish for a longer stretch of continuous music - a few of Bach's Toccatas, for example, or his Chromatic Fantas)' and Fugue, BWV903 and Italian Concerto, BWV971.' Well, now he has given us all seven Toccatas. If you don't yet have a recording of them in your collection, Hewitt and Bacchetti are different, complementary, and on a pretty even keel. Because they are such special and marvellous pieces, acquiring both versions would not be excessive.

Stephen Pruslin