To play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach well, a knack for sonic alchemy is required. One must be able to make swirling waves of chordal density—the original sheets of sound—feel both propulsive and calm, a deep grounding that’s simultaneously an invitation to travel the world.
On this disc, Brad Mehldau gives himself further challenges: to transpose works meant for harpsichord to the piano, whose blockier notes contrast with the former’s radiant numinosity, and to respond to those works with pieces of his own. Mehldau’s light touch, which feels like the quiet revival of a sleeping musical power, is evident on Prelude No. 3 in C# Major, from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach was not a pastoralist, but Mehldau imbues something of the empyrean. We can also detect little hints of boogie-woogie-type chording; Bach, after all, loved a good rolling bass figure as the anchor for airier harmonics.
Fugue No. 16 in G Minor, from Book II of the WTC, is tantamount to a duet for one instrument, with that two-in-one approach splintering off in various dialogic patterings—like when you’re sitting in Starbucks and the hum of humanity seems to turn into a confluence of melody before reverting to a series of separate conversations. Mehldau is an excellent “talker” as a pianist, and that serves him well. He’s also skilled in “covering” Bach’s compositional hallmarks through his singular gift for writing. “Before Bach: Benediction” is the crystalline morning that opens the record, the sensation that a new world is about to unfold; the closing “Prayer for Healing” melds Bach and Mehldau with the conic sound-shapes of something like Trane’s “Alabama.” Bach was speaking to you, and so is Mehldau, twining melodic lines around each other as if one of them even belonged to you. That twining, of course, was Bach’s central purpose as a composer, and it’s what his jazzy descendant underscores in his pianistic way.
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