Is there anything new that could possibly be done with Bach? For a long time since Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg variations, some of us had widely assumed that the best of Bach was preserved and we could all purchase budget recordings and live our lives content. Evan Shinners seems to have challenged that notion with his live recording @Bach, originally released in April of 2011.
I was first exposed to this album by visiting Shinners's website which plays a moody and at times playful video of the young pianist dressed up to be the rude-boy of Baroque music. From a marketing standpoint, this is a somewhat risky venture as the cut-away footage to silly dialogue and images carries with it the potential of appearing pretentious. On the other hand, it does allow some insight to an artist present in a genre which is often accused of being stuffy, snobbish and uninviting. Here we get to see some degree of eccentricity - there is a chance for genuine personality even if it is somewhat gimmick-ish.
First the technical: Shinners plays beautifully and passionately, his lines are clearly identifiable and very melodic (so very important in Bach). The more hard-nosed fans might disparage his use of the damper pedal, but it is something that I applaud. I have always felt that by the very nature of performing Bach on a piano, one is automatically doing an adaptation. Therefore; we should be willing to use the tools the piano has to offer us. That aside, there is a remarkable versatility in terms of character in this recording. From playful minuets, to more aggressive toccatas, to a very elegant allemande, everything comes out very connected yet very diverse at the same time.
Shinners does address the audience at a few points during his performance to talk about various subjects such as history and his aims in "keeping improvisation alive." This leads me to believe that the album is really meant to mirror the experience of actually being at the concert, which again is something that I applaud. In our digital age of MP3s and hit singles, it has been some time since there has been a recording released with the aim of being a complete experience.
As for recording quality, it seems to be somewhat decidedly low-fi by modern standards. In a way, this is charming for the solo piano, but the album features an ensemble concerto at the end of the performance and something just sounds off. Everything seems to be very well-played but because the balance doesn't have that "gone over with a fine-toothed-comb" sound, it comes off a little bit like a garage recording (which works very well for a Modest Mouse track, not so much for Bach).
Overall though, I have to say that this is by far one of the most innovative Bach albums to be attempted by any artist in a long while. And, while I may take issue with Evan Shinners promotional character - I refuse to fault him for bringing something very needed to the classical world. In the end, it will be interesting to see if this gamble pays off. In the meantime - the recording (at least the piano sections) are very worth hearing and buying.
The album is available on Amazon