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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das wohltemperirte Clavier (The Well-tempered Clavier), Book II, BWV870-893 (1739 or earlier – 1744)
No.1 in C major [2:16+1:44]
No.2 in c minor [2:47+2:36]
No.3 in C# major [1:36+1:33]
No.4 in c# minor [3:47+2:18]
No.5 in D major [5:13+3:00]
No.6 in d minor [1:37+1:47]
No.7 in E flat major [2:44+1:38]
No.8 in d# minor [4:35+4:20]
No.9 in E major [4:44+3:35]
No.10 in e minor [3:26+2:42]
No.11 in F major [3:25+1:33]
No.12 in f minor [2:47+1:56]
No.13 in F# major [3:47+2:20]
No.14 in f# minor [2:52+4:59]
No.15 in G major [2:47+1:12]
No.16 in g minor [2:06+2:53]
No.17 in A flat major [4:10+2:19]
No.18 in g# minor [5:03+4:27]
No.19 in A major [1:48+1:39]
No.20 in a minor [3:43+1:49]
No.21 in B flat major [4:47+1:59]
No.22 in b flat minor [2:58+5:36]
No.23 in B major [2:10+4:10]
No.24 in b minor [1:54+2:05]
Bob van Asperen (Christian Zell harpsichord, 1728)
rec. September 1988 and March 1989, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg. DDD.
VIRGIN VERITAS 3 85795 2 [68:16 + 73:44]

This 2-CD set completes the super-bargain-price reissue of Bob van Asperen’s recording of the complete Well-tempered Clavier, Book I having already been reissued on 3 49963 2. 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.
Most of the currently-available versions of the Well-tempered Clavier are performed on the piano. A comparable bargain for those preferring the piano in these works is about to be reissued by Hyperion in September 2007 in the form of Angela Hewitt’s first-class performances, gathered together in a 4-CD set on CDS44291/4, a better bargain than the ubiquitous Jenö Jandó’s Naxos piano versions, well regarded though these are in some quarters. Reviewing her recording of Book II on this site in September 1999, Gerald Fenech wrote “With such a persuasive and talented guide as Angela Hewitt, the art of learning becomes transcendental.” I leave you to follow the hyperlink to that review without further comment: I cannot profess to be a fan of Bach on the piano, even in performances as excellent as Angela Hewitt’s. There is some evidence that Bach intended some of the preludes and fugues in Book II to be played on the new-fangled fortepiano, possibly to demonstrate the virtues of that instrument, but the fortepiano of Bach’s day was almost as far removed as the harpsichord from the modern concert grand. Perhaps some enterprising company will one day record a set on the fortepiano.
By the time you read this review, therefore, that will be the situation sewn up for both harpsichord- and piano-fanciers. For those preferring a single super-bargain CD of ‘highlights’, Australian Universal have recently reissued Wilhelm Kempff’s DG recording of twelve preludes and fugues from the complete Well-tempered Clavier on the super-bargain Eloquence label (457 653-2). End of review!? Not quite.
My comparison for this review was with Ton Koopman’s recording, which used to be available on an Erato 2-CD Bonsaï set and is surely a candidate for reissue on Warner Apex; I believe it to be currently available only in a multi-disc box. van Asperen and Koopman adopt much the same tempi for the opening preludes, but even here they sound very different: van Asperen more forthright, brighter and more forwardly recorded, Koopman more recessed and more thoughtful, in a slightly more reverberant acoustic. The Virgin recording sounds fine if played at a little below normal volume.
To some extent this is a matter of the differences between the instruments and locations, van Asperen playing an original Christian Zell instrument of 1728 in its home, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, probably not an ideal location for the sound engineers. Koopman plays a 1978 Willem Kroesbergen reconstruction of a Ruckers instrument. The Zell is a two-manual instrument; no information is given in the Erato booklet about the harpsichord or the location of the recording. To some extent, too, it is a matter of interpretative differences, van Asperen offering the more straightforward – but not inexpressive – interpretation, Koopman more idiosyncratic, though less so than in his sister recording of Book I, where he is inclined at times to be wilful.
In fact, the information given in the Erato booklet is the barest minimum, with no notes at all about the music. The Virgin booklet is a little better but, as usual from this source, far from detailed. The English and German notes offer the beginner no information at all concerning the meaning of ‘well-tempered’. Those whose French is up to it will find the notes in that language more informative. Briefly, the tuning of keyboard instruments is something of a compromise: tuning any instrument in perfect fifths from, say, middle C, eventually leads to a C several octaves higher which is discordant with the original C, necessitating the first compromise. Then, since C# is not exactly the same note as D flat, a well-tempered instrument is tuned between the two – otherwise there would be an unmanageable number of keys, the instrument would be elephantine, and the number of chords which the player’s hand could manage would be very limited. Early attempts to solve the problem meant that keyboards could not manage all 24 keys which can be performed on the members of the violin family. The modern solution, known as equal temperament, is a development of the well-tempered systems developed in the late 18th-century, hence the name which Bach gave to the first book and which has been extended to the second book. For more detail on the various temperaments, look at an informative online article by organ historian and designer Stephen Bicknell.
Bach was not the first to write a series of 24 pieces in ascending order throughout the keys – indeed, the E major Fugue of Book II may have been influenced by a similar work by Johann Fischer – and we do not know why he wrote two such collections, over twenty years apart. The title page of Book I suggests that Bach wished to present himself as one well versed in musical theory at a time when he was bidding for the post at Leipzig – a post for which he was at first rejected, partly because of his lack of academic qualifications.
Hence the ‘48’, as the two collections have come to be known, have contributed to the impression that Bach is a cerebral composer, when nothing could be further from the truth. In Bach’s day enjoying and learning to understand music were inseparable, a trick we have lost sight of today. It is perfectly possible to enjoy the ‘48’ without knowing anything about equal temperament – as, indeed, those who buy this Virgin set must perforce do unless they read up on the subject elsewhere. As the anonymous writer of the French note in the Virgin booklet puts it: “There is no trace of austerity in the Well-tempered Clavier, but rather a spirituality which verges on exuberance. Diversity, freedom, concision and imagination are the rule … [in the second book there is] incalculable richness, vast dimensions, sumptuous polyphony and greater power [than in the first.]” It is on these counts that ultimately van Asperen is preferable to Koopman, who is apt to sound a little too reflective, cerebral and didactic at times.
The Virgin booklet points to the c minor and d# minor preludes as examples of van Asperen’s employment of the variety available on his two-manual instrument, allowing him the opportunity of using contrasted manuals on repeats. The two players adopt very similar approaches to the c minor prelude, with van Asperen slightly the slower at 3:47, though Koopman at 3:31 paradoxically sounds slightly the more measured, and both vary their playing to some extent in the repeat.
The effect of the varied repeat is rather more noticeable in the case of van Asperen’s version of the d# minor prelude, somewhat less so in Koopman’s version – and once again Koopman takes a few seconds less but sounds more relaxed. Just to confuse the issue, Erato describe this prelude as in E flat minor – a difficult proposition with a key signature of six sharps with not a flat in sight! In neither case, however, does the variety second time around leap out of the speakers at the listener: piano-fanciers would doubtless retort that there is only a limited degree of variety possible even on a two-manual harpsichord by comparison with a concert grand. Unless, of course, one were to revert to the huge grand-piano-size harpsichords once favoured by such as Rafael Puyana. The argument, of course, is that if Bach had known the capabilities of the modern grand piano, he would have revelled in it; to which my reply is that he would have written different music. If I want to hear a composer use the full dynamic range of the piano I go to the romantic warhorses such as Liszt; with Bach I expect the variety to be more subtle.
The swings-and-horses situation between van Asperen and Koopman continues until the very last prelude and fugue, in b minor. In the prelude Koopman both sounds and is, for once, slower at 2:24 and van Asperen, at 1:56, does sound slightly too hurried here, though his technique is not at all challenged by the faster tempo, as if he is letting his hair down now that the end is in sight. In the fugue, however, it is van Asperen who transforms what begins by sounding like a cerebral interpretation into an enjoyable experience. His initial spelling out of the theme sounds rather like a primary school teacher’s careful explanation but once the fugue is underway the didactic touch changes to playful enjoyment – though not quite the “poised elegance” which the booklet notes speak of. Koopman’s version does, perhaps, sound more elegant, but at the expense of the exuberance.
If ultimately my preference is for van Asperen, to the extent that I intend to replace my recordings of Book I with his, I think it a shame that the Koopman set is not currently available, either as a 4-CD box or as two 2-CD sets. The recently reissued 2-CD Koopman set of Handel’s Organ Concertos (Apex 2564 62760 2) is a superb bargain and one which I cannot recommend too strongly. An Apex reissue of Koopman’s Bach would be almost as welcome, though only as a supplement to van Asperen, whose versions of both books of the ‘48’ I urge you to buy.
Finally, since I usually try to point readers in the direction of free copies of the scores, I offer a hyperlink to a website where out-of-copyright scores of the whole of Book II may be downloaded, piece by piece.
Brian Wilson


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