The French Suites, BWV 812-817; Adagio in G, BWV 968; Fantasias, BWV 920-922; Keyboard Sonata in D minor, BWV 964
Alexandra Papastefanou (piano)
First Hand Records FHR 70 141:29 mins (2 discs)
Her sometime teacher Alfred Brendel characterises Alexandra Papastefanou’s Bach as ‘riveting’, and this sequel to her 2018 release of the ‘48’ confirms that judgement. The French Suites might be less ambitious than their English cousins but no one’s evidently told Papastefanou who finds felicitous sophistication at every turn. Her approach is undeniably idiosyncratic. On the one hand a razor-sharp articulation and historically-informed awareness of Bach’s dance models aligns her with harpsichordist free-spirits such as Richard Egarr; yet her search for ‘affekt’ is eclectic and she never forgets that her instrument of choice is a Steinway concert grand. Generally she deploys the pedal sparingly, but nonetheless rips, foot down, into the A minor Fantasia BWV 922, positioning it as a gusty forerunner of Debussy’s Le vent dans la plaine. The transcription of the Adagio from the C major Solo Violin Sonata also speaks to her inner romantic.
That said, how many pianists could imbue the D minor Suite’s ‘Gigue’ with such convincing French ouverture chic; adorn the E flat Suite with its additional movements, BWV 815a (despatching an unmeasured ‘Prélude’ to the Baroque manner born); or embellish with such aplomb. Just occasionally she over-gilds the lily, as with the high-speed yodelling of BWV 814’s ‘Menuet 1’. And not everything is easy to swallow. But when the G major’s ‘Bourée’ courts an effervescent lick trumped by a ‘Gigue’ exuding unbridled joy, be assured: Papastefanou’s is Bach playing of considerable distinction, vivacity and insight.