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Fanfare Magazine: 39:5 (05-06/2016) 
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"... I recommend this disc highly."

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Reviewer: Alan Swanson

There are relatively few recordings of both the Inventions and the Sinfonias, whose earliest manuscript compilation is Bach’s own from 1723. Like the small preludes and fugues he put together for his students around 1709 and 1720, they seem simple, designed to provoke contrapuntal practice and to develop independence of the hands. Zhu Xiao-Mei argues, however, that they’re more than that and, I suppose, being by Bach, that is probably inevitably true. It also seems to be the case that the Sinfonias draw more attention than the Inventions, but Zhu Xiao-Mei makes a cogent case for the intellectual and pedagogical value of the latter as well.

In his Aufrichtige Anleitung (sincere/earnest instructions) to the collection, Bach speaks of their purpose eine cantabile Art im Spielen zu erlangen (to gain a cantabile [singing] style of playing) as the ideal he sought for how his music should be performed. Alas, this compact and cogent piece of advice has been almost universally ignored for at least the last 70 years.

These are astonishing pieces because Bach, who also intended them to instill in the player a sense for composition as well, simply gets so much out of so little. For those who think counterpoint is dutifully dull (or who hated it in class), the First Sinfonia ought to clear the ears: Here is Bach playfully daring every “rule” any theorist ever devised. Or take the expressive simplicity of Sinfonia No. 5, whose single, tiny, persistent bass motif supports a simple, repeating, rhythmic figure That’s all. But in less than two minutes, we are taken on a considerable harmonic journey. It is, indeed, an astonishing example of true Minimalism.

Zhu Xiao-Mei takes Bach’s advice to heart as she begins her traversal of these two sets, all the Inventions followed by all the Sinfonias, rather than by Invention and Sinfonia paired. It has to be said, though, that the rather martellato legacy of Glenn Gould is a hard one to shake off and there are occasional lapses, though these, perhaps, come in the name of “color.” Occasionally, too, she takes some of the ornamentation from the so-called Little Keyboard Book of the year before, written for Wilhelm Friedemann, his son. In Invention No. 10, Zhu Xiao-Mei shows how one really can combine clear articulation with cantabile: Here and elsewhere, she often takes the quarter notes independently but keeps a good singing line in the eighth notes. Her tempos are on the fast side but rarely sound rushed. Interestingly, she tends to take the Sinfonias slower than the Inventions

In 37:5, Jerry Dubins reviewed a new performance of these pieces (and some other Bach as well) by Simone Dinnerstein, which he quite liked, but which I have not heard. Listening to Dinnerstein’s Bach on the net, however, I can say that Zhu Xiao-Mei’s view of these pieces is quite different and, despite its short length, I recommend this disc highly. It will appear again on my Want List.


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