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 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
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.