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
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.