Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869
CD 1 - BWV 846-857 [59:15]
CD 2 - BWV 858-869 [60:41]
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870-893
CD 1 - BWV 870-877 [46:53]
CD 2 - BWV 879-885 [56:23]
CD 3 - BWV 886-893 [56:44]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. 7-15 January 2008 (Book I) and 7-22 August 2008 (Book II), Wörthsee, Bavaria
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 19922-5 [5 CDs: 279:56]

This new recording comes in two versions: one with just the CDs, and a second in two large VHS-sized boxes, each containing a small book with autograph reproductions of the scores of the Well-Tempered Clavier, with missing pages replaced by modern typeset scores. There is actually a third version, since this is sold by download as well, at Amazon and iTunes. The scores are nice to have if you’re a musician, and even if you’re not: just being able to see Bach’s writing for these pieces, and seeing the way the notes flow, is interesting. The CDs also contain extensive liner-notes discussing the issues of performance practice inherent in the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Woodward, well known for his work recording modern composers, has been tackling Bach of late, beginning with his recording of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue d minor and two partitas in 2007. At the late age of 65, he therefore makes his first recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier; the same age at which Bach died.

The first thing to note is the number of CDs this set contains, and hence its length. Most recordings of this work fit on four CDs; Woodward uses five. The recording of Book 2 is just a few minutes too long to fit on two CDs without splitting the 13th prelude and fugue. With more than a dozen recordings of this work in my collection, only two take up five discs: Roslyn Tureck’s BBC Legends set, recorded in 1975 and 1976, and Peter Watchorn’s recent set. As far as timing is concerned, Woodward is third behind only Tureck and Watchorn. Here are the overall timings for some of the Well-Tempered Clavier recordings in my collection:

Gould: 3:30
Ross: 3:50
Verlet: 3:53
Kirkpatrick: 4:00
Levin: 4:02
Leonhardt: 4:12
Gilbert: 4:15
Hewitt 1: 4:23
Hewitt 2: 4:30
Moroney: 4:32
Woodward: 4:39
Tureck 1: 4:56
Tureck 2: 4:58
Watchorn: 5:19

Woodward therefore comes in a bit above average in timing. Naturally, timings are not just about tempi, but also involve whether or not repeats are played. More is not better, and Glenn Gould’s recording, at a mere 3:30, ranks as one of the top sets in my collection - idiosyncratic it is, but it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic. Yet Woodward never sounds slow, as Tureck often does; again, not that slow is necessarily bad; Tureck proves this, as does Wolfgang Rübsam in his Bach recordings on piano.

Sometimes, listening to certain performers play Bach, you can tell that they just don’t get it; that Bach is not their idiom; that while they may be stars in the firmament when they play Chopin, Liszt or Beethoven, that they can’t adapt to Bach’s styles and rhythms. Hearing Woodward, I hear the exact opposite: it sounds as though he’s been playing Bach all his life - which, apparently, he has, in spite of not recording Bach’s music - and it sounds like he “gets” Bach. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a difficult work to play, and, in fact, difficult to listen to. Not composed to be either played or heard in extenso, it puts great demands on both performers and listeners. Naturally, the performers get to focus on one piece at a time, when recording, but we listeners generally listen to at least one disc at a time. It’s interesting to note that Angela Hewitt performed the Well-Tempered Clavier in concert nearly 60 times in 2007 and 2008, and then went on to make a second recording of the work, greatly informed by that extensive performance experience.

There was a time when I was Bach-obsessive: I listened to little else for a couple of years, with the exception of other Baroque composers. During that time, I listened to the Well-Tempered Clavier repeatedly, performed by many different pianists and harpsichordists … and even clavichordists and organists. When you have heard this work so many times, its melodies become second nature. And rather than focusing on individual bits - the separate preludes and fugues - you can allow yourself to get a broader picture of the work and any performance. When you become that familiar with a work of this breadth you start to hear its overarching structures. There is a tone, a style, and a performer needs to establish a baseline way of performing these works, which they then adapt to each of the varied pieces of music they contain.

Woodward’s lyricism is apparent from the outset. He uses neither Gouldian nor Tureckian extremes; his tempi sound natural and neither too fast nor too slow. Nor does he attempt, as many pianists do, to make the music sound like, say, Beethoven. Bach on the piano can be perilous, but Woodward never sounds forced or out of place. His technique is smooth and flexible, but he’s not afraid to use ornamentation that is more common to harpsichord recordings. His use of legato is balanced and attractive, and his phrasing sounds natural. While this recording is not breathtaking, it just seems to fit. Woodward seems to avoid trying to stand out, but the sum of all the parts make something that excels.

There is something “comfortable” about this recording. Woodward seems so at ease with the Well-Tempered Clavier that his version stands out as one worth paying serious attention to. Avoiding the extremes of Gould and Tureck - both masters in their own ways - Woodward stakes out a compelling middle ground. While the Steinway piano he uses sounds a bit muffled - the sound is the one drawback of this set - this recording should stake out a place at the summit of piano recordings of this masterful work. We can only hope that Roger Woodward will record more Bach in the future.

Kirk McElhearn