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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (The Well-tempered Clavier), Book 1
24 Preludes and Fugues BWV 846-869 (collected 1722, some pieces earlier)
CD 1
No.1 in C major BWV 846 [2:49+2:21]
No.2 in C minor BWV 847 [1:27+1:30]
No.3 in C# major BWV 848 [1:14+2:13]
No.4 in C# minor BWV 849 [2:43+5:18]
No.5 in D major BWV 850 [1:18+1:48]
No.6 in D minor BWV 851 [1:32+1:38]
No.7 in E flat major BWV 852 [5:46+1:41]
No. 8 in E flat minor BWV 853 [3:27+7:20]    
No.9 in E major BWV 854 [1:34 +1:20]
No.10 in E minor BWV 855 [2:35+1:17] 
No.11 in F major BWV 856 [1:16+1:24]
No.12 in F minor BWV 857 [2:11+5:25]
CD 2
No.13 in F# major BWV 858 [1:31+2:06]    
No.14 in F# minor BWV 859 [1:15+4:02]
No.15 in G major BWV 860 [0:54+2:38]
No.16 in G minor BWV 861 [2:59+2:23]   
No.17 in A flat major BWV 862 [1:17+3:25] 
No.18 in G# minor BWV 863 [1:21+2:26]  
No.19 in A major BWV 864 [1:20+2:14]   
No.20 in A minor BWV 865 [1:09+5:06]       
No.21 in B flat major BWV 866 [1:18+1:44]
No.22 in B flat minor BWV 867 [2:53+3:27]    
No.23 in B major BWV 868 [0:59+2:55]
No.24 in B minor BWV 869 [3:03+7:13]
Bob van Asperen (harpsichord, Christian Zell, Hamburg, 1728)
rec. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, February, April 1987. DDD.
VIRGIN VERITAS 3 49963 2 [61:22 + 59:51]


This short review is by way of an appendix to my recent review of Bob van Asperen’s recording of Book II (3 85795 2).  I was so impressed by that 2-CD set that I immediately went out and bought myself the first volume.  I was not disappointed, nor can I imagine anyone who buys either or both of these bargain-price sets being disappointed, except that those who buy them both separately could have bought the complete 4-CD set (Virgin 5 61711 2) for two or three pounds more cheaply than the price of the two separate pairs.

To repeat what I said earlier, the whole set was already excellent value on its earlier 4-CD mid-price issue; it now sweeps the board for versions not performed on the piano, since the Kirkpatrick (clavichord) and Gilbert (harpsichord) sets remain at mid-price.  Arguably van Asperen would be the winner, even on a level playing-field.  Listening to Book I in no way changes my mind.

As before, van Asperen plays an original (1728) Zell harpsichord in the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe.  Some have found the tone of this instrument harsh and unvaried, a criticism which may seem to have some validity if the CDs are played at too high a level but which very largely disappears at some 3dB or so below my usual volume setting.  I believe that the acoustic of the museum may have contributed to this impression: such a precious instrument would not have benefited from removal to another recording venue and the museum itself may not have been an ideal place to record.  In any event, I do not wish to make too much of this small reservation: played at a suitable level the harpsichord sounds bright and forward but not too much so. 

As for the accusation of lack of variation, it is true that van Asperen largely lets the music speak for itself in a straightforward but by no means lumpish manner.  Tempi seem to me about right throughout – mostly on the fast side, with technique fully capable of sustaining such tempi, lyrical and reflective when this is called for.  There was never a single moment on either of these two sets when I felt that van Asperen was taking liberties with the music.  If the registration is rather unvaried, that is far better than some of what used to pass for Bach on the harpsichord on large-scale modern instruments that sounded little more like their eighteenth-century predecessors than the modern concert grand. 

Those who require the greater range of expression of which the piano is capable will find a comparable bargain in the Hyperion bargain-price 4-CD reissue of Angela Hewitt’s complete recording on CDS44291/4.  Though I dislike Bach on the piano, I have to admit that she does more than most other pianists to make Bach ‘fit’ the instrument.  As I was preparing to write this review, I listened to her playing Bach and Domenico Scarlatti on the broadcast of the mid-day Chamber Prom on 03.09.2007 and admired how in several passages she actually made the modern concert grand imitate the delicacy of the fortepiano.  But then I wondered why, instead of going to great lengths to imitate the delicacy of an eighteenth-century instrument, she did not actually play an eighteenth-century instrument. 

Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier predates Book II by some 20+ years.  Some of the pieces had appeared earlier, so it may not have been intended for the continuous performance which it receives on modern recordings.  (Perhaps listening to the music in a manner which Bach never intended explains why some have found van Asperen’s performance unvaried.)  Its title-page makes clear its intentions: “for the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning, as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”  It is, therefore, meant to be both didactic and enjoyable, and that is exactly how van Asperen makes it sound.  It may also have been designed to show the capabilities of a particular form of well-tempered tuning, the various forms of which were the predecessors of modern equal temperament.  (Bach may have preferred the Vallotti system to one of the more common Werckmeister versions.)  Those wishing to know more of these matters should read my review of Book II and consult the article on tuning and temperament by Stephen Bicknell which I have recommended there.  They will also find there a link to a site where they may obtain free copies of the individual Preludes and Fugues.

Brian Wilson



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