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Pienaar’s Expressive Pianism Stirs Up the 1600s

Daniel-Ben Pienaar
Uta Knizia
Daniel-Ben Pienaar

Thoughtful and miraculously gifted communicator Daniel-Ben Pienaar has chosen 36 keyboard miniatures from the 17th century and colorized them on the modern piano, and we’ve chosen the result as our WCRB CD of the Week.

South African pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar is a champion of expression. He rejects the mindset that a pianist must restrain his personal, expressive freedom when performing the music of the revered composers of the past. His knowledge is immense, and he has a preternatural gift for communicating (with piano and pen). At the Royal Academy in London he is the Curzon Lecturer in Performance Studies, and when he teaches, he is devoted to freeing up the player within – helping to fashion tools for loosening the grip of convention and the burden of unquestioned traditions. He is wary, for instance, of overusing certain terms. In an interview a few years back he gave an example:

Using the words “structure” and “form” all the time engenders a certain kind of behavior in people – I find that if you use those words too much … you buy into a kind of architectonic metaphor which is all about straight lines, geometrical angles, hard materials…

And Pienaar practices what he preaches. His CDs include the complete Beethoven and Mozart Sonatas, Bach’s Complete Well-Tempered Clavier and the six Partitas, all the keyboard music of Orlando Gibbons, plus Chopin, Schubert and the 20th-century South African composer Arnold Van Wyk -- all fresh, and honest, with a sparkling and full-spectrum use of the instrument.

It makes perfect sense that he’s in on the recording process every step of the way, too, as he writes: “I engage intensively with the recording process itself, both mapping and editing my own work – and having long discussions with engineers about the aesthetic possibilities of recorded sound.”

Now, he’s taken up a “cornucopia” of personally-chosen keyboard pieces from the 17th century and brought them to life in a really remarkable and personal way – two CDs with a set of liner notes unpacking every question you might have about getting from the virginal, or the organ, to a 9-foot Steinway. And a lot more.

The result is a wonderful, deeply informed kind of magic. Listen to Merula’s Capriccio cromatico (CD 1, track 2): an obsessive knocking in a slithering context of unrelenting half-steps, with Pienaar giving it a background/foreground treatment on the modern piano that makes it mesmerizing.

He chooses Frescobaldi’s organ Toccata cromaticha (CD 1, track 10) knowing that the modern piano’s ability to “color every note individually by touch, dynamics, or the pedal” will help to bring out its “otherworldliness.” Oh, yes.

Also be sure to check out CD 1, track 8, when Couperin’s little Duo in g minor stretches and snaps with a playfulness that only extreme technical finesse can allow for. And when Buxtehude’s sparkling, 15-minute Variations on La Capricciosa become serene (CD 2, track 6) time stops, and Pienaar melts the voices into a deeply touching melancholy.

Finally, be sure to not miss the perfection of Pasquini’s cuckoo (CD 2, track 10; see below).

You’ll come away from reading Pienaar with a real appreciation for the wild inventiveness that went on in the 1600s. He describes his desire to create a palpable sense of a dialogue between opposites by coming up with a list of extremes that includes “archaic to new-fangled, multifarious to monochrome, weightless to earthbound, and buttoned-up to exuberant.” You’ll hear them all. And you’ll come away from listening to him with your heart stirred.

Here’s an interview from a few years back:

Listen to a track from the album:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.

Cathy Fuller is a Host and Producer for CRB.