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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1
CD 1: Preludes and fugues (BWV 846 – 857)
CD 2: Preludes and fugues (BWV 858 – 869)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Recorded at Teldex Studio, Berlin, 27-30 December 2003. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61553-2 [59:10 + 65:34]
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The Well-Tempered Clavier is frequently referred to as the pianists’ ‘Old Testament of Western music’, and in Barenboim’s hands it certainly has an ‘Old World’ quality to it. Viewed in its entirety, the performance brings to mind Edwin Fischer’s recording from the 1930s – wonderful pianism, often understated playing, marked by liberal use of the pedals. This is, of course, worlds apart from the incisive, sharp clarity that Glenn Gould brought to these works. Rather than concentrating on bringing out the astonishing complexity and polyphonic detail of these compositions, Barenboim is happier producing a rich harmonic texture to each piece, beautifully realised on a modern Steinway.

After reading the above paragraph, those who favour a historically informed interpretation will probably already have left the building. This would be a pity, however, as Barenboim offers real insights into many of these pieces. Listen, for example to the serene atmosphere he produces in the fugues in C minor and E flat minor. Wonderful, transparent playing, with subtle variations in the length of notes within individual lines, serving to clarify the texture of this music. Occasionally he does too much of the work for us, directing us towards the foreground and background, but this is a minor complaint. He also sometimes over-romanticises in places, particularly in the more contemplative works, when a more measured pace would be in keeping with the spirit of the writing (for example, both prelude and fugue in C sharp minor). However, it must also be said that he is able to reach further into some of the more imposing, cerebral pieces than anyone since Sviatoslav Richter’s offering in the 1970s. Try the Fugues in F sharp minor and B flat minor, and the preludes in G minor and B minor. Unfortunately the fugue in B minor, perhaps the greatest of all these works, lacks the insight of Tureck (in both her earlier and later recordings) and Richter.

Perhaps more than any other artist, Barenboim brings all the works together in a way that is unmatched in most other performances. Rather than treating each prelude and fugue coupling as independent works, there is a consistency of tone across the entire performance that leaves the impression of a single, complex canvas. This makes for a satisfying experience, although the incredible variety of moods and colours that can be found in these pieces, is somewhat muted.

Overall, then, this is a recording to savour and it rewards repeated listening. For the uninitiated, I cannot think of a better and more accessible introduction to Book I. There are few of the wilful eccentricities frequently found in Glenn Gould’s recording (and occasionally in Tureck’s recordings too). Instead, the emphasis is on contemplation and introspection. This highly pianistic approach will, of course, never win over period practice fanatics, but to me it demonstrates rather beautifully how Bach’s towering keyboard compositions can be successfully realised on the modern piano.

Peter Bright

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