Peter Hill's Bach recording - CD of the Week on BBC Radio 3’s CD Review

image of Peter Hill Bach CDThe recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II* by Peter Hill – Professor Emeritus in the Music Department – continues to attract critical acclaim, most recently being selected as CD of the Week on BBC Radio 3’s CD Review (28th April 2012). Introducing excerpts from the recording the programme’s presenter Andrew McGregor described Peter as ‘an engaging, penetrating, thoughtful and entertaining guide to Bach’s flights of fancy and rigorous counterpoint. His touch, and the clarity of his finger work, is impeccable; he doesn’t over-ornament, he doesn’t rush the preludes, he weights the voices and balances the fugues with insight. And even though Hill’s playing is suffused with the meditative and spiritual qualities you’d hope to find, he still remembers that Bach likes the odd dance. I very much hope Book I is in the pipeline.’

Since retiring two years ago Peter has continued to work in the Department, and although he does no formal teaching students frequently take the opportunity to consult him. The recording of Bach, first in a projected series for the Edinburgh-based Delphian label, is a new departure for Peter who is known for his performances and recordings of twentieth-century and contemporary music. His complete cycles of Messiaen and of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern have received superlative reviews. The Messiaen was described as ‘one of the most impressive solo recording projects of recent years’ (New York Times), and won Messiaen’s endorsement: 'Beautiful technique, a true poet: I am a passionate admirer of Peter Hill's playing.’ Both sets feature in 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die. Other CDs include Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen (with Benjamin Frith) and two CDs of Stravinsky with the composer's arrangements of The Rite of Spring and Three Movements from Petrushka.

Peter’s writings include three books on the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, research recognised by the award of the Dusmesnil Prize from the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. As well as recitals Peter Hill gives lectures and masterclasses around the world: recent appearances include the University of Western Australia, University of Chicago, Boston University, New York University, the Juilliard School of Music, McGill University, Carnegie Hall, and the Library of Congress.

Other reviewers of the Bach recording have been equally enthusiastic:

'Peter Hill’s eminence as a Messiaen scholar and as an outstanding interpreter of his music has tended to overshadow his qualities as a pianist in a much wider range of repertoire. But JS Bach is also a special interest of Hill’s, and this account of the less often performed half of the 48 Preludes and Fugues underlines what a fine pianist he is. Every performance here is quite audibly the product of careful consideration… Yet there is nothing didactic about the results, just a wonderfully natural unfolding of these pieces, in which Hill is never ashamed to make full use of the tonal resources of the modern piano. The crystalline quality of his quiet playing is a regular pleasure. With luck this is the first in a series of Bach recordings from Hill, and let’s hope Book I of the 48 follows soon.' Guardian

'Hill’s approach is to capture the engaging balance between the crisp clarity of the music and its innate lyrical soul. He makes no apologies for the expressive potential of the piano, but simply uses that to harness the universality of the music, from its pre-echoes of early classicism to sparks of undeniable romantic mood-painting. Never once, though, does it sell out Bach’s stylistic integrity.' The Scotsman (Rating: *****)

'In coming to Book II first, [Peter Hill] gives exceptional readings, scholarly yet living, the intricate intellectualisms well-attended to, but there is also a vital communication that makes this music so relevant today. For all the compositional rigour, Hill makes these Preludes and Fugues sing and dance, and also brings out their unshakeable foundations of faith.' Hi-Fi Critic

'A winning combination of warmth, clarity and insight … Cleanly recorded and warmly recommended.' Classical Music: Editor’s Choice

'Peter Hill is that rare musician: a virtuoso with an immaculate and comprehensive technique allied to unusual and practical scholarship of great depth of knowledge, which he brings to the imposing task of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. His performances throughout Book II on these Delphian discs are immaculate in terms of realisation of the notation, but are also driven by an emotional, expressive range that at all times looks below the surface of the music to divine the depths of Bach’s creativity.

In terms of tempos, Hill is ideal throughout these pieces; there is nothing contentious of meretricious about his speeds – they are, surely, those which Bach himself would have chosen had he found himself in the same position. Hill’s part-playing is a joy – always put at the service of the contrapuntal nature of the writing, and his approach to each of the individual fugues surely stems from his appreciation that none of them conform to a pre-arranged ‘form’.

One of the great joys of Hill’s playing is that, time and again, one can identify those aspects of the fugue in question wherein he has ascertained (almost as he plays the music) the nature and ‘shape’ of the overall composition as it evolves, naturally, from within his willing hands, curbed and directed by his own creative intelligence.

In other words, and without falling into myriad levels of hyperbole, this is exceptionally fine Bach playing… ' Classical Source

'Peter Hill is the latest to join the parade of pianists – Edwin Fischer, Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, Sviatoslav Richter, András Schiff and Rosalyn Tureck, to name just a few – who have recorded JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. In addition to his explorations of the Second Viennese School, Hill is best known for his monumental cycle of the complete piano works of Olivier Messiaen. Indeed, many of the qualities that characterise his Messiaen are present here: note his use of varied pianistic colours – here muted, there radiant, sonorous then shimmering. And, as in his recordings of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, Hill unfolds contrapuntal lines with clarity, displaying an eloquent understanding of the music’s underlying structure.' BBC Music Magazine (Rating: *****)

'His performance of the G sharp minor fugue is the most convincing I have ever heard, along with Edwin Fischer’s recording … The Prelude no 19 in A major (whose rising motif in 12/8 metre represents the flight of angels in Bach’s musical iconography) sounds delightful in Hill’s hands. The sequence climaxes with the Prelude and Fugue no 20 in A minor, the anguished, serpentine, chromatic lines of whose Prelude are again perfectly captured … The last two pairs are beautifully played … I have enormously enjoyed getting to know Hill’s Bach playing … I urge you to investigate this version.' International Record Review

* J. S. Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book II
Delphian DCD34101 (2 CDs)