Alexandra Papastefanou’s Captivating Bach French Suites

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Alexandra Papastefanou’s captivating Bach pianism is hard to sum up in words. Certain aspects of harpsichord technique inform her approach in regard to varied articulations, strong finger independence, and the use of agogic caesuras and tenutos to demarcate phrase groupings. On the other hand, she takes advantage of the modern concert grand’s potential for tone coloring, dynamic shading, and subtle pedal effects. More to the point, Papastefanou is thoroughly musical in her fusion of intuition and insight, and her French Suites easily rank among the catalogue’s finest piano editions.

Perhaps its easier to explain the virtues of her performances by way of comparative listening. In the First Suite Sarabande, for example, Murray Perahia’s stricter, faster pulse is essentially line oriented. By contrast, Papastefanou’s melodic trajectory follows a freer path, emphasizing the harmonic tension. Her Gigue is more whimsical and less assertive, yet no less rhythmically focused.

The C minor Suite’s Air particularly exemplifies the difference between Perahia and Papastefanou. The former phrases like a conductor in tandem with a matchless chamber orchestra, while the latter’s aforementioned agogic stresses and breath pauses evoke the best harpsichord playing, with a lighter, more supple touch than in András Schiff’s stylistically comparable Decca traversal. Papastefanou’s similar conception vis-à-vis the B minor Suite’s Anglais also enchants, and she sculpts the unmeasured arpeggiation in the E-flat Suite Prelude with finesse and imagination.

Much as I appreciate the aura of intimacy through Papastefanou’s G major Suite, I prefer the more rarefied magic that Wilhelm Kempff and Sergio Fiorentino manage to conjure up in this music. The Adagio in G major BWV 568 is a texturally elaborated keyboard manifestation of the Adagio from Bach’s C major solo violin sonata, and gorgeously showcases Papastefanou’s superb finger legato. Likewise, one scarcely misses the violin in the A minor sonata’s G minor keyboard version. Better still, the A minor Prelude BWV 922 transcends its etude-like nature through Papastefanou’s spontaneous and playful interpretation: she sounds as if she’s making up the piece on the spot. Excellent annotations and sonics add to this release’s special appeal, together with First Hand’s generous two-for-one price tag.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: French Suites: Perahia (DG)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    The Six French Suites BWV 812-817; Adagio BWV 968; Fantasias: BWV 920 & BWV 922; Keyboard Sonata BWV 964; Prelude (Fantasia) BWV 921
  • Alexandra Papastefanou (piano)

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