Niels Viggo Bentzon’s Tempered Piano

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000) considered The Tempered Piano to be the central achievement among his staggeringly prolific keyboard output. This magnum opus is made up of 13 cycles, each encompassing 24 Preludes and Fugues in all of the major and minor keys. The first volume dates from 1964, with Vols. 2-5 appearing during the mid-to-late 1970s. The series resumed in 1985, picked up considerable steam in the early 1990s, and concluded with Volume 13 in 1996.

Bentzon follows Bach’s model by placing each volume’s preludes and fugues in ascending order of key. However, tonality is not always a clear-cut issue, nor are fugal textures, where contrapuntal lines may suddenly evolve into chordal or cluster-packed outbursts. The Preludes also cover a wide range of moods, from aphoristic flourishes to drawn out and desolate pieces that evoke Shostakovich at his starkest. This body of work has garnered little attention outside of Bentzon’s native Denmark, although the Classico label issued the composer’s own live piano performances of the entire cycle as a long-out-of-print 15-CD set.

Admittedly, the music is uneven in quality and requires time and patience to wade through all 13 books in pursuit of gold. That’s precisely what Per Salo has done in creating a well-contrasted personal selection of 24 Preludes and Fugues drawn from Volumes 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 13, covering each key, and, in the end, doing Bentzon’s unfettered creativity justice.

I particularly like the E minor Prelude, which at first evokes the Bach Sixth Partita’s opening Prelude but then morphs into Prokofievian territory. The F-sharp minor Fugue’s marching repeated notes never quite follow the harmonic roadmap you expect, while the G-sharp minor’s expansive lyricism and expressive simplicity hold great appeal. On the other hand, the E major Prelude and Fugue seemingly sputters out a hundred ideas within its 1:19 time frame. In contrast to the fluent, functional, yet frankly rough-hewn pianism heard in Bentzon’s aforementioned recordings, Salo shows up like a full-time virtuoso. He not only has all of the notes comfortably in hand (no matter how uncomfortable they may be to play!), but is thoroughly adept at voicing the counterpoint, navigating the sudden shifts in character and texture with ease, and planning out the dynamics. A most welcome release.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None for this collection

  • Per Salo (piano)

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