Pianist Angela Hewitt nailed it when she wrote of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV846-893), or 48 Preludes and Fugues, or simply the “48”: “It is an inexhaustible treasure trove of the greatest possible music, combining contrapuntal wizardry with (Bach’s) immense gift for expressing human emotion in all its forms. Bach amazes us by absolutely never running out of steam. In The Well-Tempered Clavier, we find a piece to suit every mood and every occasion.”
Yet harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock disarmingly claims in one of his wonderful My Baroque videoblogs on YouTube that: “…it’s always been something that I’ve put off (recording) because I never felt that I had the depth of knowledge of Bach to really take on such a vast thing. But at a certain point in your life you have to make the decision. Either you’re going to do it or not do it. So now is the time.”
The 73-year-old doyen of the period performance world highlights the music’s challenging intellectual aspects. But as Hewitt indicates, that’s only half the story, and Bach’s “immense gift for expressing emotion in all its forms” is present in almost every bar. Which is something Pinnock grasps both intellectually and intuitively in this sublime account of Bach’s Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, which together with Book II has exercised the minds and touched the souls of generations of performers and listeners for centuries (the first fair copy of Book I dates from 1722).
Playing a sonorous, silvery Henri Hemsch copy tuned using an unequal temperament “which sounds well in all keys but retains some variation of key colour,” Pinnock leads us through Bach’s exploration of all 24 major and minor keys with unerring style, impeccable technique and a youthful sense of wonder.
The flowing, deceptively simple C Major Prelude is, under Pinnock’s fingers, as clear and firm as an opening “home key” piece should be, serving as a solid reference point for all that follows. Its companion Fugue is likewise straightforwardly rendered, while introducing us to Pinnock’s subtle use of varying articulation and agogic accents, as well as style brisé to gently break vertical intervals.
As for the rest, all of life is here. The pensive reflection of the C minor Prelude. The lilting joy of the E Major Prelude. The sparkling thrill of the toccata-like B Flat Prelude. The vertiginous drama of the E Minor Prelude. The grandiosity of the “French Overture” D major Fugue. The ebullient joie de vivre of the F Major Fugue. The majestic, chromatic intensity of the F Minor Fugue. The rich saudade of the B Flat Minor Fugue.
Sticking to harpsichordists, my favourites include the elegant Christoph Rousset, the profound Masaaki Suzuki, and, when I’m feeling a little adventurous, the flexible Richard Egarr. Like Pinnock, they are all experienced conductors of their own period-instrument ensembles. But for all-embracing readings that, like the music itself, will stand the test of time, Pinnock now goes straight to the top of my list.
Compositions: Well Tempered Clavier Book I
Performers: Trevor Pinnock hpscd
Label: Deutsche Grammophon DG 4838436