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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I BWV 846-869 [144.36]
Peter Watchorn (pedal harpsichord)
rec. 20-22 October 2005, St. Mary of the Hills, Milton, MA.
MUSICA OMNIA 0201 [144.36]

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is a well-known work consisting of 24 preludes and fugues, in each major and minor key. Performers and musicologists have long wondered exactly what was meant by “well-tempered”. It means, of course, that the instrument is meant to be tuned in such a way that the different pieces in all 24 keys sound “pure and agreeable”, something that Bach’s obituary said he achieved. Yet not until recently has it been possible to tune a keyboard instrument in this manner. In 2005, musicologist Bradley Lehman published two articles in Early Music, entitled “Bach’s extraordinary temperament: our Rosetta Stone”, where he lays out what he thinks would well-temper a keyboard. And this recording is the first Well-Tempered Clavier to use this tuning. For more information, see

If it were only for the arcane question of tuning this recording would have little more than intellectual interest. There are other factors that make it, perhaps, one of the finest available recordings of this work. First, Peter Watchorn brings to this recording his more than 35 years’ experience playing Bach. Watchorn is a consummate performer, not only injecting energy and vibrancy into his playing, but also approaching this recording less as a collection of preludes and fugues than a single work consisting of 48 movements. This large-scale approach combines with a cyclic approach as Watchorn tacks a 49th movement at the end: a da capo performance of the opening prelude, which shows that the work has come full-circle.

But there’s more. Watchorn performs this recording on a pedal harpsichord, which might be considered the string version of an organ. The pedal harpsichord has pedals, like an organ, that play low notes, allowing the performer to approach Bach’s intricate counterpoint in a different manner. The sound of this instrument is delicious; with a full range of bass notes and treble sounds, it is a truly complete harpsichord. A copy of a 1646 Ruckers, this harpsichord is strung with soft iron and brass, and no clicking sounds from the jacks as the instrument is played.

Without discussing individual sections of this work — in part, because of Watchorn’s intention to present it as a whole rather than a sequence of short pieces — I must say that it is one of the most satisfying recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier that I have ever heard. Were it simply Watchorn performing, without the near-perfect instrument and the unique tuning, I would probably say the same, but the combination of all three elements makes this as close to perfect as I have yet to hear. And when you get to the end of the second disc, hearing the initial C-major prelude again — though performed differently, and somewhat longer than the first version — you realize that you have taken a musical journey that you will want to repeat many times. Watchorn is currently working on recordings of all of Bach’s keyboard works, and I am looking forward to hearing them all, especially those that use this tuning and this instrument.

Kirk McElhearn




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