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: 59:15 + 60:41 + 46:53 + 56:23 + 56:44]
This has to be one of the most sumptuous CD releases I have ever seen. In its limited edition complete form, the jewel cases are housed in fine quality book-shaped boxes, which also contain separate volumes of the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, as far as is possible, in facsimile form. It is of great value to be able to follow this music in Bach’s own manuscript, though the reduction in size and a certain amount of smudgy distortion of the notes on some pages makes legibility sometimes less important than an impression of the music’s flow. Those manuscripts which have been lost have been set anew by Johannes Gebauer. In summary, these are objects to be treasured, artefacts which go best with your collection of boxed leather-bound antiques rather than jostling with your hundreds of rattly plastic CD cases or lowly cardboard box sets. My congratulations go to Celestial Harmonies for their sense of design and taste.
So, on to the music. Both before and since Glenn Gould’s remarkable recordings of these pieces we have of course had many recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier, but few which have made such a dramatic impression. Not everyone warms to Gould’s highly individualist and often somewhat dry readings, but few could deny the impact they have had over the years since their release. As performances they are remarkable, but fall into their own category and are therefore not really suitable for comparison. I have lately been under the spell of Till Fellner’s Bach playing on the ECM label, and look forward to adding Book II to his warmly expressive recording of Book I. Where I would consider Fellner over Woodward is in his shaping of phrases, consistently forming arcs and circles which give each piece a marvellous sense of form. Woodward is good at pointing out the counterpoint and has a fine clarity of texture, but each individual theme has a different character to Fellner’s detailed and alchemic melodic dissection of each piece.
My own desert island choice for The Well Tempered Clavier in a complete edition has for many years been that with Sviatoslav Richter, whose early 1970s recordings are still very much worth having on RCA GD 60949, despite the dreadful cover art. His recordings fit onto 4 CDs despite some remarkably slow tempi in some of these pieces. The fact that Roger Woodward’s set has gone onto 5 discs does not however indicate even more improbably slow performances. If you look at the disc timings for Book II you will see that they only miss fitting onto two discs by a whisker. Daniel Barenboim’s recent WTC is also on 5 CDs, and it is in the nature of the concert grand piano that some of this incredible music deserves a bit of a linger, so I have no doubt we shall see more of this kind of pattern in the future.
Remarks published on the Celestial Harmonies website naturally bring up Woodward’s release of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903, and that commentators have acclaimed his Bach as “the most exciting since Glenn Gould.” This might be true of BWV 903, but in a way I am glad that his approach to the WTC is not quite so revolutionary. “His understanding of Bach is minted by tradition and above all respectful, especially showing such respect to those who set standards during the first century of recording technology.” This is connected to an acceptance of Bach’s structures as a given, and thereafter embarking on a search for passion in music which is not essentially or overtly passionate in the same way one would regard the emotional content of ‘romantic’ piano music. This is not to say that Woodward plays Bach in a perversely romantic idiom, but that he allows romantic expression to come through where it naturally exists in the music. This is something I also hear in the spirit of Sviatoslav Richter’s playing of these pieces. What I do appreciate is that Woodward has abandoned those rather aggressive and splashy trills in his playing of these preludes and fugues. His ornamentation almost always feels well placed and natural, and without overly spot-lit emphasis.
I have to admit to being a little concerned on first impressions. After a sturdy prelude, the first Fugue in C major comes across as rather forced. The theme is to my mind played too firmly from the outset, so that when the other parts are involved it has to shout to be heard. Compare this to Richter’s gentler, tender rendering of this same fugue and you will hear what I mean. Richter can make the leading voices sing more though his quieter textures, and I find this a far more effective approach in this case. Woodward seems to settle down after this however, and while he tends to articulate with spoken words rather than lyrical lines this doesn’t lead to discomfort. Take the Prelude in C sharp, where those wide interval figures are joined into more of a line than Woodward, who places them more as a sequence – related, but less than conjoined. Where Woodward has a great deal of strength is in the rhythm of the faster fugues and preludes, lifting the collective effect of the counterpoint beyond being just a row of notes or a sequence of well shaped phrases into a whole which carries you along on an irrepressible tide of incredible sound. Slower numbers, such as the Fugue in C sharp minor, have a more linear feel, but again the lines are less ‘vocal’ than with Richter, who somehow seems able to conjure a celestial choir at times. Woodward is more pianistic in this regard, but in his way just as involving and persuasive. The bounce and swing of the D major prelude is like joy personified, and the stern frown he gives us frequently lightens, though never quite to the extent of impish fun. The infectious elation he communicates swells in your inner being, but is less likely to give you a wink and a toothy grin.

There are plenty of magical highlights in Book I, and Woodward doesn’t shy away from bringing out as much of the expressive potential in the music as he can find, and Bach provides. The Prelude and Fugue in E flat/D sharp minor is a case in point, this kind of music being given plenty of simple space in which to expand its own narrative, the pianist lending it his own sense of poetry without imposing strange mannerisms or quirks. While rarely straying from the ‘middle of the road’, Roger Woodward manages to create plenty of special atmosphere and individual character to these pieces, and this is an aspect of these recordings which make them last on repeated listening, the mind delighting in discovering new things on each occasion, and unencumbered by a sense of impending strangeness or wilful interpretation.
Reviewing Sergey Schepkin’s recording of Book II on the Ongaku label I outlined some of the reasons I find Richter’s recording of the same music marginally less satisfying than his Book I. I still wouldn’t want to be without it, but Roger Woodward’s impressive approach bears the kind of fruit which rivals all comers. The orchestral sound of the first prelude bodes well for what is to come, and with this session coming six months after the Book I recordings one has the feeling that Woodward’s sense of freedom with this Hamburg Steinway D has grown even more in the meantime. He maintains that sense of narrative and conversational pianism whose lines are more blurred in Richter’s playing, for instance in the lilting lines of the Prelude in C sharp major, the ‘vocal’ lines peeking through, but more in a mention of their presence rather than a full chorale announcement. The balance of leading voices as opposed to countermelodies is closer with Woodward than Richter, who frequently pulls back more on the lines which have a more accompanying value. This is one of the ways Woodward pulls us along on the crest of his pianistic wave, in a fugue such as that in C sharp minor. Where Richter has us looking in several different directions in rapid sequence or all at once, Woodward prefers to integrate the lines and provide the music with a sense of mass and flow which has its own drama and power. I have to admit to being programmed to prefer the dotted rhythms Richter and other players build into the end of the main theme of the D major prelude, but you can look at the score in Woodward’s set and see that this wasn’t the way he wrote it. Those dotted rhythms do integrate well with the ones Bach writes into the countersubject, but life is too short to pick nits on this kind of topic.
Once again, there are too many wonderful moments and movements in this recording to list everything, and such things are in any case subjective. You may not like the way Woodward builds the D sharp minor prelude into a living, breathing entity which seems to undergo demise and revival more than once; or you might not want ever again to hear the way he turns the Prelude in E major into a piece at once innocent and sophisticated, simultaneously limpidly flowing and crystal clear as the water flowing from a high glacier. You might not, but I challenge your stony heart not to melt when faced with such choice and immortal morsels. He provides all the luminosity I would want to hear from the lovely Prelude in F, and the fugue which follows is a real drink on a stick – refreshing to all parts. Such is the music in Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and Roger Woodward reinforces all of my feelings about this as pure music, as well as making it vibrant and alive and in some intangible way bringing it right up to date – as music for now, not as a beautiful but extinct fossil to be preserved under glass in a museum.
Even without these superb recordings, this release would be worth the asking price just for the extensive two-part booklet notes by Roger Woodward, “In Search of a Performance Practice”, and those autograph facsimiles of both Books. These are the kinds of CD releases which you feel you should bequeath separately in your will, such is the feel of worth and value they have. Is Roger Woodward’s well considered Well-Tempered Clavier perfect? I would dispute that there is any such thing, but nothing in this recording has made me go ‘?’ and most if not almost all of it has been a case of just absorbing absolute and easy splendour. For the first time in nearly 30 years I am faced with a conversion: the next time I am asked which recording of this music I want to take with me onto my desert island, I won’t instantly say Sviatoslav Richter, and I might not even mention him at all.
Dominy Clements
Such a fine release, you may feel the need to bequeath it as a separate item in your will. ... see Full Review