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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 and 2
Andrei Gavrilov (Book 1: 1-12)
Joanna McGregor (Book 1: 13-24)
Nikolai Demidenko (Book 2: 1-12)
Angela Hewitt (Book 2: 13-24)
rec. New Art Gallery, Walsall, (Gavrilov), Palau Güell, Barcelona, (McGregor), Palazzo Labia, Venice (Demidenko), Wartburg, Eisenach (Hewitt), February 2000
Directed for TV by Karen Whiteside (Book 1) and Peter Mumford (Book 2)
Sound format: PCM stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1; DTS 5.1
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Region code: 0
EUROARTS 2050308 [2 DVDs: 121:00 + 139:00]

Experience Classicsonline

While Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is one of my favourite works, it’s not something that’s apt to in extenso listening. At over two-and-a-half hours for the two books, neither is it a work that lends itself to a filmed performance. Naturally, one can break it down into the two books - which one should, in fact, since they were composed at different periods of Bach’s career - but this still doesn’t seem the right kind of music to listen to while watching on TV.
 
Part of this feeling is because so many films of pianists are drab and dull. It’s clear that the producers of this set took this into account in an attempt to present this music in a way that would highlight the music while maintaining a level of interest for the visual dimension.
 
Four pianists are featured, each performing a half a book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, or 12 preludes and fugues. This ringing of the changes is the first element that makes the set unique. While their interpretations are not that diverse, they do bring slightly different styles to the music. Some listeners might prefer a single performer for the work but this approach injects variety to make things more visually engaging. Not only are there four pianists but each performs in a different location.
 
We begin with Andrei Gavrilov, performing at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, England. In this very modernistic location, we quickly see the approach taken by the directors. Each pair of pieces - one prelude and fugue - is performed in a different part of the building, each with its own distinctive lighting. There are even changes of clothing and hair-styles. This sets the tone for all four parts of the set: each of the performers changes location, lighting and clothes for each pair of pieces. In addition, the camera-work is varied from one set of pieces to the next. Some are tight shots, others slow boom shots, and others distant shots from odd angles.
 
The second performer is Joanna McGregor playing in the Palau Güell in Barcelona. This older, more traditional building is darker and has, at different times, wooden beams, stone arches and marble columns. It’s exactly the opposite of the angular, minimalist New Art Gallery and exudes age.
 
Nikolai Demidenko opens book 2 in the Palazzo Labia in Venice. This baroque palace is quintessential Venice: with wall tapestries, marble floors, chandeliers and frescos, this building is attractive and is well used in this film. Some shots show the building from the outside, then peer in to watch Demidenko playing through a window. Others show the water of the canal lapping at the feet of the palazzo. Prelude & Fugue no. 10 is interspersed with shots of someone assembling a piano, something that is very out of tone here; I don’t know what the director was thinking, interrupting what had been, up until then, nothing but films of performances … and the occasional outdoor shot of the canal. I guess that, since Demidenko is playing a Fazioli piano, there might have been some contractual need to show the company’s factory - if it is, indeed, the Fazioli factory we see.
 
Closing book 2 is Angela Hewitt, playing at the Wartburg in Eisenach. This classical German castle stands high on a precipice overlooking the town of Eisenach, where Bach was born, and where he lived until age ten. Shots in this section include some by candlelight in small rooms, others in sunlight in a large hall, and others in sombre settings.
 
The sound throughout this set is very good, but is somewhat inconsistent, which, given the multiple locations, is natural. It’s worth noting that Demidenko’s Fazioli piano has a harsh sound, unlike the Steinways that the other three performers play. It seems to privilege the treble and diminish the lower tones.
 
If I had seen a description of this set - with different locations, clothes and lighting for each prelude and fugue pair - the idea would probably have made me hesitate. But after watching it, I have to admit that it’s a unique way to present this music. Unlike, say, a performance of some Beethoven sonatas, which are longer works, the fragmentary nature of the Well-Tempered Clavier lends itself to this sort of approach. While the concept is odd, I found that I got used to it very quickly, and enjoyed it.

A few things stood out, however. Only Gavrilov is playing in a modern building; the other locations fit the music better. The two performers of book 1 play from scores; on book 2, Demidenko and Hewitt don’t use them. I’m surprised by the former: surely, for a project of this sort the musicians should know the music well enough to be able to eschew scores. Only Hewitt is physically demonstrative in her playing; the other performers are relatively static; this is not a bad thing either way, simply an observation. The use of two men and two women is a good way to show the range of pianists who perform this work. What might have been more interesting, and perhaps a bit more daring, would be to have two performers play piano and two play harpsichord. While I’m not a fundamentalist about Bach’s keyboard music being played on the harpsichord, and I enjoy piano recordings, the contrast would have added to this set. And why not go even further: harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano and modern piano.
 
As for the actual performances, this is not the place to judge the merits of these excellent pianists. One does not buy this set for the interpretations as much as for the overall experience. If the former were the case, one would avoid a set with four performers. They all play this music very well, and I have no gripes about style or interpretation. Of the four performers, Gavrilov is perhaps furthest from my ideal, with Hewitt being more in line with what I like, but for this set I’m more than happy to listen to this variety.
 
This is a fine initiative that presents in a new light extraordinary music that many people may not be very familiar with. If you’re a fan of Bach, there’s a good chance that you’ll appreciate this approach and the unique way the music is presented.
 
It’s worth noting that this set is a re-release; Tony Haywood reviewed the previous release in 2005. I only read his review after completing mine, and I find that, while he addresses specific issues of performance that I don’t, we tend to agree overall.
 
Kirk McElhearn  

 


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