City Recital Hall, Angel Place, for Sydney Festival
January 18, 2015

It’s fair to assume that any pianist of note will be intimately acquainted with JS Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier, but Belgian pianist Alain Franco’s devotion to these seminal works is virtually unrivaled. The 96 preludes and fugues from Bach’s twin volumes spanning the full chromatic spectrum are not only arguably the most important musical achievement of the Baroque period, but also one of the single most accomplished acts in the pantheon of human creativity.

Few people would claim to match Bach’s genius, but Franco’s herculean feat of performing all 96 of these perfectly crafted pieces from memory is an awesome act in itself, akin to reciting the complete works of Shakespeare or Pi to several thousand decimals. With a running time of just over four hours this is not only an impressive display of pianistic virtuosity, but of super-human endurance as well.

Taking the concert platform at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Franco tactically chose to dress casually, in a simple jumper and chinos. Comfort trumps concert dress when you have hours of performance stretching out ahead of you. The stage was bare but for the Steinway and a simple constellation of dimly glowing light bulbs hanging down from overhead. This performance would not be about visual spectacle, but about an intimate exploration of a sublime and unmatched work of musical brilliance. For the next four hours it would be just us, Franco and Bach.

This behemoth of a concert is split into two halves, with 53 works, played almost without a single pause in the first half, and 44 works in the second. Aside from the scale of this recital, the other revelation here is Franco’s careful curation of the music, shuffling the order of the preludes and fugues across both books. Franco is a committed advocate of contemporary music, and while purists may grumble about altering the smallest iota of Bach’s work, Franco’s willingness to experiment with the harmonic relationships of these pieces shows a bold and fearless desire to shed new light on this ancient music.

It’s this fascinating, and often inspired reordering that completely transforms this recital into a journey of discovery. The juxtaposition of pieces from both volumes, which were written almost 20 years apart, really illustrates the significant stylistic development of Bach’s writing between the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier in a way that made it feel as if we were hearing these works for the first time. Franco also edits certain cadences throughout to allow several pieces to flow seamlessly. Breaks, when they come, are used with impressive dramatic effect, allowing a sudden change in character that further adds to the feeling of enquiry and exploration. The harmonic relationships between consecutive pieces in this newly curated order sometimes seem easy to understand, but often the pairing of different harmonic areas is extremely exotic and adds a fresh and exciting strangeness to the chromaticism of these pieces. The single repetition of the performance is the Prelude in b flat minor from Book 1, which begins and closes the recital. Although an ocean of time separates the two performances of this short, achingly beautiful piece, the philosophical relevance is clear: Franco is closing a circle, creating an implied infinite loop of Bach’s keyboard masterpieces that could continue to play forever.

Franco is a pianist of restrained physicality, with very few extraneous gestures save for the occasional, and distinctly conductor-like (his other talent) caress of the air to shape the nuance of a fugal subject. Beyond this he displays an astonishing control of the complex counterpoint and layered polyphony with a surprisingly understated dexterity. There is a very endearing humility to his performance style that shows a deep reverence and affinity with this music, which he is easily able to communicate with the most economical of physical forces. This isn’t to say that Franco fails to enunciate the almost limitless variety of different emotions present in this music. Each new key was given a unique character, from sombre reflection all the way to unbridled joy and exhilaration.

Inevitably after the first hour or so, some small errors and a slight decrease in clarity appeared, but given the enormity of the undertaking, these very minor slips are entirely forgivable. Indeed Franco far from wimps out on the significant challenges posed by many of these pieces, exhibiting some terrifyingly break-neck tempi several hours into the concert, including a jaw-droppingly fizzy rendition of the B flat Major Prelude from Book 1, just two pieces before the close of the recital.

However, while Franco’s stamina was able to endure the full four and a half hour event, this performance can easily claim to be the most challenging for the audience at this year’s Sydney Festival. The stalls, which had been almost full at the beginning of the performance, had noticeable gaps after the interval. Those who chose to stay for the duration were unrestrained in showing their admiration for Franco with a huge standing ovation which felt as if we were not only applauding a breathtaking accomplishment, but also celebrating an event the scale of which we may not get to see again for a long time.