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 www.larips.com.
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.
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.