JS BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Albert Landa)

Homespun Bach from a veteran Australian pianist.

JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was never meant for public performance. Composition of the first book of these sets of matching preludes and fugues was begun in 1720 as exercises for one of Bach’s numerous children. The second set was not embarked on for a further 20 years. Yet these piano works, always meant primarily for technical instruction, and initially rarely played through, have become beloved by audiences and performers who (as Bach most certainly did) see beyond the pedagogical purpose to the absolute perfection and beauty of form exhibited throughout the works. Perhaps only the Beethoven sonatas stand as similar pianistic peaks, but the condensed, succinct expressions of the Bach preludes and fugues put them in a class of their own.

For this recording veteran Australian pianist Albert Landa, now in his mid-70s, eschewed the recording studio and visited a private home in Castlecrag Sydney, where his hosts provided him with a Steinway B for the purpose. Landa recorded the two Books over only five days – a swift ascent of this pianistic Everest.

This recording venue really gives me the only serious reservation about this set. Recital halls and modern recording studios have spoiled our ears somewhat for appreciating even the finest domestic settings. The recorded sound is over-reverberant and somewhat woolly. I miss the crisp articulation I hear in my favourite sets, those by András Schiff or even the wonderful, much earlier recording by Sviatoslav Richter on his Bösendorfer.

But the ear adjusts. And what does predominate is Landa’s sense of total accord with the music, with its shifts in mood and expression as fugue succeeds prelude, and as Bach plays with all the musical emotions his well-tempered clavier can afford. Bach’s “Clavier” can of course be played on the entire range of keyboard instruments, from harpsichord to grand piano, but I must admit a preference to hearing the works of this old master performed with full expression on modern instruments. 

Landa gives us what we can sense is a performance imbued with the thoughts and experiences of a lifetime. On YouTube, ABC Classics has posted a clip that presents not only a lightning-fast introduction to the recording, but a sensitive insight into the performer, who compares the process of learning the entire Well-Tempered Clavier to climbing Mount Everest. It’s also a very personal experience, for both listener and performer, and the aural imperfections are easily set aside. 


Copyright © Limelight Magazine. All rights reserved

This article appeared in the June, 2012 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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JS BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Albert Landa)
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