Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869
CD 1
BWV 846-857 [64:36]
CD 2
BWV 858-869 [62:50]
Vardo Rumessen (piano)
rec. 4-7 January 2009, Tallinn Estonia Concert Hall
ESTONIAN RECORD PRODUCTIONS ERP 3620 1/2 [64:36 + 62:50]

While you may not have heard of Vardo Rumessen, his reputation in Estonia is very high. He is perhaps best known for performing the work of his fellow countrymen, a good deal of 20th century music, and particularly composers such as Eduard Tubin. He is now one of the elder statesmen of Estonian music, and although his interpretations are frequently imbued with a certain amount of artistic license he is certainly not the only Estonian musician to ‘improve’ compositions where opinion dictates they might benefit. My inside sources also tell me he is sometimes to be seen riding around Tallinn’s Kadriog park on a bicycle. Far more significantly, after first performing this music in 1977 he has now finally produced a commercial release of Bach’s Hästitempereeritud Klaver, I osa.

I’ve been hearing plenty of piano versions of this keyboard masterpiece in recent years, and the idea of receiving a new recording which would open my ears all over again was far from my mind when I first saw this release. Packaged in a nicely produced DVD-sized book, the two CDs are mounted on the inside cover boards held by those foam ‘nipples’. The book itself has an interesting essay by Vardo Rumessen on The Well-Tempered Clavier in Estonian and English on glossy paper, and some nice illustrations. The first impression is that it might have been aimed at some kind of tourist market, which may indeed be the case, but either way it is a nice artefact and has an aura of faux-antique quality which will sit nicely on faux-antique coffee tables.

Rumessen’s view is not one of authentic performance practice, but is one which extends the line which sees the WTC as a kind of springboard for Western Music thereafter: “an encyclopaedia of polyphony that became the foundation of all that followed in music.” He is not the only pianist to take this viewpoint, but hearing this WTC set my own trains of thought spinning through all kinds of spaces. I think we’re at an interesting point when it comes to Bach on the piano, and The Well Tempered Clavier in particular. Pianists have been recording it for years, and interpretations range from the magic of Edwin Fischer, the eccentric and sometimes wilful genius of Glenn Gould, through the poetic Sviatoslav Richter, and the more romantic but highly attractive and intelligent playing of Angela Hewitt. This in itself is a springboard of various approaches and traditions which can be an inspiration, but also a muffling duvet stuffed down the voice of originality. Pianists who want to express this music with their own voice will always have to cope with comparisons with their predecessors, but even finding your own individual things to say on this music is now something of a challenge. The question is, is Bach subject to the law of diminishing returns?

No doubt unconsciously, Vardo Rumessen has dealt with this question, and risen to this challenge. Through the years he has clearly developed his own depth of vision on each prelude and fugue, and the cycle as a whole. This WTC Bk1 is both attractive, individual and original in numerous unexpected ways. Yes, there are comparisons to be made. The fugue of the great Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor for instance owes much to Richter in its extended slowness, Rumessen pushing the boundaries even further and at six minutes adding significantly even to Richter’s timing. The quality in Rumessen’s playing and his intelligent approach to Bach is apparent from the outset, the first Prelude in C major both spreading fine harmonic sonorities and holding up the ‘every note is melodic’ principle. What you often hear in Rumessen’s fugues is a clear, unfussy, modern approach which carries you along in a sort of state of objective grace. He doesn’t go in overly for overt lyricism, but neither are his melodic shapes ungraceful. He doesn’t go in for extremes of rubato, but neither is his attitude to expression in tempo wooden or static. The crisp articulation of the C minor Prelude is miles away from Glenn Gould’s distinctive recording, but the ways the melodic notes are thrown between each hand have their little seed planted from Gould, Rumessen adding micro ‘messa di voce’ rise and fall shapes with each off-beat, creating intensity and texture as well as pointing out the significant notes. The C minor Fugue is another crisply shaped statement, the melodic shapes defined by their dynamics as much as by subtle variety of articulation and note duration.

I’ve been listening carefully to try to divine the Rumessen ‘secret’, and to avoid a blow by blow written account of the entire recording I will point out a few highlights. The simple grace of both the Prelude in E flat minor and the Prelude in C sharp minor is quite magical, seeming to strip away a layer of that player-Bach interface which can stand between the listener and the purity of the music. The following C sharp minor fugue I have already mentioned, and once you have become accustomed to the slow tempo its sheer length and gently gathering power builds a structure of vast magnificence – this counts as well for the E flat minor fugue, though not in quite as extreme a fashion. Where the music usually dances, such as with the Prelude in D minor and the Prelude in E major, Rumessen is more formal than extrovert, the pace fairly restrained and winning in clarity rather than in sheer excitement. The D minor fugue also points to his take on ornaments, which are more often than not played with carefully rhythmic accuracy rather than as trill effects. Lovely little touches occur in the Prelude in E flat major, real legato here taking over in the chorale second section. The contrasts in texture of articulation at the opening and final section are like the tastiest morsels in a fine dish in a posh restaurant. One aspect with which I found a modicum of difficulty was the occasional extra rhythmic gap Rumessen uses to point out the question-answer pattern of certain fugue themes. This is the case with the E flat major fugue, which suffers a little through a certain amount of lumpiness as this feature is continued through the more complex interactions of the counterpoint. He can also be a little choppy, the four-square rhythms and accentuations of the Fugue in A minor perhaps too tightly articulated for their own good. Rumessen however proves he can generate plenty of energy and forward momentum in examples such as the Prelude in F major and the Fugue in E minor, which is preceded by a prelude which has a Gould-like articulation in the ostinato left hand.

Rumessen’s clarity and directness comes partly through accurate and reliable definition of note durations, which the two-part Prelude in F sharp major shows very well. He will sometimes shorten notes more than we’re used to, as in the Prelude in A major, but where you might lose something in terms of a softer, more legato roundness, you gain in transparency of texture. All of these elements are only the building blocks, and while Rumessen’s readings are not really in the ‘romantic’ category neither do they sound mechanical or mannered. His Bach is more than the sum of its parts, and only hearing it can you really discover what I am trying to capture in words. There is plenty of highly charged, almost subversively suppressed emotion in the slow and measured development of the Fugue in F sharp minor, and while some might apply the word ‘orchestral’ to this kind of breadth of expression I would disagree in this case – the implication also being a kind of extra weight which Rumessen avoids here, in fact keeping the piano texture light throughout the 4-part polyphony. There is a beautiful slowness to the Prelude and Fugue in B minor which make you sit up and take note. Rumessen is good at keeping us on our toes throughout the cycle, and I like the way this feels as if it would work equally as a live performance as well as a recording. Temptations to give the ‘authority’ of the music its head, in something like the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, are expressed more in the nature of the music than in the nature of the playing. Rumessen is decisive, but while expressing a personal style seems able to avoid imposing a layer of extra ego. He avoids pomposity, even with the final cadence of the final fugue. There is a modicum of unevenness here and there in some of these pieces, but nothing too untoward – I think we can allow for that kind of thing within the category of musical ‘elder statesman’. Whatever editing has been done is very professional and invisible under normal listening conditions, and Rumessen’s ability to deal with Bach’s technical challenges is usually faultless.

While Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier has always been a monumental challenge and vehicle for keyboard excellence, its function as a medium for personal expression seems to have entered a kind of golden age in recent years. Pianists from Daniel Barenboim, Maurizio Pollini, Till Fellner and Roger Woodward to Angela Hewitt – twice, all show how diverse are the ways and means of expressing Bach’s marvellous legacy. While there are always going to be recordings which are more successful than others this Well Tempered Clavier proves once again that it can hold a new and different touch to those we already know and love. The recording production for this release is very good, the well-prepared Steinway piano sound sympathetically clear without being uncomfortably close. Vardo Rumessen’s WTC Bk1 is not in a competition to be ‘the best’, and in many ways stands aloof from direct comparison with other recordings. In my opinion it is rather special, and not only for opening my ears to new perspectives in this Panglossian polyphonic masterpiece.

Dominy Clements

Another new perspective on WTC Bk 1.