Donald Satz wrote (September 15, 2003):
Comparisons: Gustav Leonhardt/EMI, Glen Wilson/Teldec
The highly esteemed Pierre Hantai has now entered the Well Tempered Clavier sweepstakes with his new recording of Book 1. Hantai, born in 1964, studied harpsichord with Arthur Haas. He eventually became a regular member of Sigiswald Kuijken's La Petite Band and has also worked often with Jordi Savall.
Hantai is no stranger to Bach's music, having made quite a few recordings as an ensemble member and soloist. Perhaps his most impressive Bach offering to date is the Opus 111 performance of the Goldberg Variations which won uniformly glowing reviews and a few awards.
Digressing a little, I felt very lucky when I found this new set in the used bins of a local record store. I wouldn't have even expected the set to ever find its way to Albuquerque. It's also likely that the recording isn't being distributed in the United States, so I do consider myself a lucky guy.
Does the good luck continue into the Hantai performances? Before answering that question, I should relate the one skepticism I've had of Hantai's music making since he first entered the world of recordings. From my perspective, Hantai doesn't like to get his hands dirty. He's a positive guy who finds the underside of human emotions and the angst of existence far from his comfort zone.
On the plus side, Hantai is usually a very fluid player with a consistently winning notion of rhythmic flair. Therefore, upbeat music tends to play into his strengths, although he surprisingly disappoints in this area now and then as discussed below. These are the reasons I can not recommend this new set of Bach performances with any enthusiasm:
The Prelude in C minor doesn't pass muster at all, because the upper voice is much too recessed and even disappears under the weight of the stern and growling lower voices. This represents a huge problem of balance that I place at the steps of the engineers who seem to have forgotten that for voice interplay to be effective, each voice must be heard and needs some space.
Then there's the Prelude in the key of C sharp minor which Hantai works at giving a major key personality. Listen to Wilson, Leonhardt, or any other number of performances, and you'll hear some incisive negativity encompassing regret and inner turmoil. Hantai wants none of that business. He takes the weight off the music through quick speed and glancing infections, sounding as if he's simply breezing along in the park. Given that the music is in C sharp minor and the greatest artists play the piece for its deep emotional longing, I have to conclude that Hantai is on the wrong track with his reading that doesn't touch me in the least.
Overall, Hantai simply doesn't dig deeply into the minor key pieces. Of course, there are a few exceptions, highlighted on Disc 1 by his reading of the Fugue in F minor that concludes the first disc. For whatever reason, this time he delves into the heart of the music's severity. By doing so, those rays of light that Bach eventually conveys are all the more stunning and wonderful. Unfortunately, Hantai excellently contrasts
darkness and light infrequently.
The severity of Bach's music increases as the work progresses, but Hantai doesn't take us along for the ride. The first motif of the Fugue in G sharp minor has a strength and desperation to it that is spellbinding, and Bach's repitition of it keeps upping these traits. Wilson is sharp and penetrating, conveying emotional dread; Hantai's a pussycat in comparison.
Another problem involves Hantai's use of hesitations. This type of expression has the potential to enhance poignancy, and there's even the possibility of changing the music's flow in a compelling manner. Hantai does none of this, his hesitations sounding arbitrary or greatly damaging the musical flow such as in the Prelude in A flat major. Listen to Glen Wilson's version of the A flat major and you'll hear unbridled joy; he drives forward enthusiastically with priority on the music's high-spirited nature while Hantai seems overly concerned with his hesitations and structural changes. This studied approach really won't do for one of Bach's most upbeat creations.
I also am not very impressed with the sound engineering. Although I've read that the sound is "gorgeous", I find it rich and rather wet. The result is a soundstage that does not want to convey substantial detail and it wouldn't surprise me at all if Hantai has more detail to offer than the recording allows. Also, catching all the intricate passage-work becomes difficult. Overall, I much prefer Leonhardt's and Wilson's drier and more clinical soundstage.
Don's Conclusions: Bach's Well Tempered Clavier encompasses all elements of the human condition in addition to a wealth of structural diversity. I can forgive Hantai's hesitations and soundstage, but I can't forgive his refusal to consistently convey the dark side of human thought. Glenn Wilson, Gustav Leonhardt, and Kenneth Gilbert do offer Bach's full spectrum and leave Hantai's version by the roadside. On piano, folks like Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, and Frederich Gulda also are much preferred to Hantai. Only if you like your Bach on the 'light' side will Hantai be a favorable guide. As for me, I'll likely donate the set to the local library.
Earlier in the review, I noted my good luck in finding the Hantai set in a local store, but I'm not feeling lucky after many hours of listening to the performances. Luck runs out, but there's always tomorrow.