In:  FANFARE – The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors – 35:3 Jan/Feb 2012

BACH : Ÿ  Suite in a, BWV 818a Ÿ Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother, BWV 992 Ÿ 15 Sinfonias (Three-Part Inventions), BWV 787–801 Ÿ Prelude and Fugue in b, BWV 544 (arr. Liszt) Ÿ Jacob Katsnelson (piano) Ÿ QUARTZ 2084 (59:40)

At first I couldn’t place him, but I knew that somewhere I’d met Jacob Katsnelson before. Then it hit me. He was the pianist who accompanied Maxim Rysanov in a couple numbers on a two-disc Quartz set of Brahms’s chamber works in viola transcriptions, reviewed in 32:5. Frankly, my focus was so centered on Rysanov that I didn’t pay much attention to Katsnelson at the time.

He was born in Moscow in 1976, entered the Moscow conservatory in 1993, and since 2001 has taught at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He has soloed throughout Russia, as well as in Austria, Germany, Spain, and France, done the competition thing, won prizes, participated in festivals, and yada yada. By now it’s an old and familiar story: gifted youngster enters conservatory, wows competition judges and talent scout, lands recording contract, and makes it big on the international concert scene.

Sometimes, the big splash dissipates in receding ripples on the pond; other times, not. I can’t say what will happen with Katsnelson in the long term; I can only register my reaction to his playing in the here and now, and that reaction is overwhelmingly positive. This is one of the most satisfying Bach recitals on piano to come my way in a long time.

To begin with, as I’ve made it clear in the past, when I listen to Bach on piano, I don’t want the artist to apologize for the instrument by playing it as if it were a harpsichord. There’s no hint of that with Katsnelson. He uses the full range of the piano’s dynamic, sustaining, and expressive potential at his disposal. And his instrument, amusingly credited in the booklet, as “a regular piano” — I presume to distinguish it from a fortepiano — is a concert grand, model E-272, from Bayreuth maker Steingraeber & Son, a magnificent specimen, if I may say so.

Further research on the company’s website reveals a number of interesting details and specifications about this new instrument: “Unique features include the unusual shape of the sound-reflecting rims, the combined star-shaped and half-timbered braces, and the ‘incredibly agreeable’ (Cyprien Katsaris) touch. The most uncommon feature, however, is the shape of the soundboard in the treble. The resonating space was newly reconstructed, based on the classical relationship between [short] string length and resonating space. Steingraeber strings have 27% less wood mass to penetrate than comparable instruments by other piano builders! The result is a tone that is present and singing, even in softer passages.”

The part about softer passages is true. Katsnelson’s pianissimos diminuendo to a whisper. But there’s no compromise in fullness of tone, resonance, or raw power. The recording, made in 2009 at the Steingraeber studio, could serve as a standard against which recorded reproduction of piano sound is measured. Intimate, as in a private music room, yet acoustically alive and vibrant, every subtlety of the instrument’s complex palette is captured and projected with amazing lifelike presence. It stands to reason, of course, that a piano manufacturing firm would design and engineer a perfect acoustic space in which to conduct painstaking measurements and tests of its products. This is the high-tech world of attaching scopes and computers to the sounding board and of analyzing streams of ones and zeros. In this case, it worked wonders.

All would be for naught, of course, if Katsnelson didn’t know his way around Bach, but he does. There are some performance idiosyncrasies, like the tendency to roll chords at cadences, that purists may find objectionable, but in general, Katsnelson’s approach is not of the Romantic persuasion. He avoids grand ritards and other sins of exaggerated point-making. He does, however, as noted above, make full use of the piano’s dynamic range and sustaining power, which means that he crescendos and decrescendos and applies pedals where it makes musical sense to do so. The result is a transparency of voicing that allows every strand of Bach’s counterpoint to be heard with pellucid precision.

For lack of a better term, I’d describe Katnelson’s tempos as temperate. Fast movements are set within sane ranges of the metronome’s upper regions, an indication that Katnelson is not interested in promoting himself as a virtuosic marvel at the expense of Bach. And slow movements are not pondered and pestered to the point of prostration, an indication that Katnelson does not approach Bach with an attitude of affected reverence that can come across as so much pious posturing. No, Katnelson’s Bach is refreshingly straightforward and superbly executed. This gets a very strong recommendation.

Jerry Dubins


In:  FANFARE – The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors – 35:3 Jan/Feb 2012

BACH : Ÿ  Suite in a, BWV 818a Ÿ Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother, BWV 992 Ÿ 15 Sinfonias (Three-Part Inventions), BWV 787–801 Ÿ Prelude and Fugue in b, BWV 544 (arr. F. Liszt) Ÿ Jacob Katsnelson (piano) Ÿ QUARTZ QTZ2084 (59:40)

 There are three very good reasons to buy this recording, two of which will be apparent to piano nerds before they even listen to it. The first such reason is the featured repertoire. Although there is of course no shortage of Bach recordings, the works presented here, with one possible exception (the Capriccio), are not exactly staples of the repertoire, and that is a real pity. To my ears, the Suite in a, BWV 818a, is as compelling as its more cosmopolitan French and English cousins, and I do not understand why it has not received more attention on record, let alone in the concert hall. Similarly, the Sinfonias (aka the three-part inventions) are first-rate Bach, and their only “fault” lays in the fact that they were allegedly conceived for didactical purposes.

The second reason to add this CD to your collection is the instrument on which it was recorded. Although the accompanying booklet acknowledges “a regular piano provided by the manufacturer Steingraeber,” the instrument in question is anything but regular. Steingraeber & Söhne is a Bayreuth-based piano manufacturer that began making instruments in the nineteenth century, when its loyal customers included the likes of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. While the instrument featured here—the E-272 concert piano—is a versatile modern instrument, it has several characteristics that make it extraordinarily suitable to Bach’s music. It has a transparent voice that is at once clear and extraordinary warm, without any trace of brittleness. The instrument also has acute timbral differentiation across the registers, with an organ-like bass and a flute-like top, which illuminates Bach’s contrapuntal writing. Long story short, if you are weary of hearing piano music always performed on the same kinds of instruments, I suspect that you will find this marvelous instrument and its distinctive personality to be very refreshing. On a somewhat related note, the quality of the recorded sound is excellent.

Of course, playing semi-arcane repertoire on a marvelous instrument will probably not get you a content audience. Just ask my neighbors. That leads me to the final—and most important reason—to get this recording: Russian pianist Jacob Katsnelson. Again, while there is no shortage of fine Bach players, I believe that Katsnelson stands with the best of them. Like other Russian pianists who play Bach, Katsnelson embraces the full potential of the instrument (including the sustain pedal, which he uses judiciously and mostly for coloristic effects), and offers performances that are oftentimes virtuosic, full-bodied and dramatic. But he is most impressive in works that require emotional repose and the kind of mystical simplicity that only the truest of virtuosi can achieve. Listen to the Sarabande of the Suite, to the “lament” part of the Capriccio, and to the minor-key Sinfonias, and you will understand what I mean. Incidentally, Katsnelson plays the Sinfonias out of sequence, rounding out the cycle with arguably the greatest pair of the set, the ones in f and E-flat major. While some purists may raise their eyebrows at this approach, it does not bother me one bit.

When faced with superlative playing like this, it is beside the point to compare Katsnelson to others that came before him. True, there have been other great recordings of some of the repertoire featured here, e.g., Wilhelm Kempff and Angela Hewitt in the Capriccio, or András Schiff in the Sinfonias. But I would not want to be without what Katsnelson has to say about this mysterious and introspective music.

                                                                                             Radu A. Lelutiu