Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Book I, BWV 846-869 [111:38]
Book II, BWV 870-893 [143:44]
Christine Schornsheim (harpsichord)
rec. 25-29 May 2010 (Book I) and 17-21 April 2011 (Book II), Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.
CAPRICCIO 7115 [4 CDs: 53:22 + 58:16 + 74:00 + 69:44]
A gauge as to whether any recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is likely to become a hit in these parts is if, once set in motion, I find myself unwilling to stop listening, or prepared to fast-forward in a search for individual numbers. This particular set has kept me up far later at night than I have planned on a number of occasions now, and while my place of work is possibly one of the few where a whispered ‘...Das Wohltemperirte...’ might see one get away with dark rings under the eyes of a morning, there are limits.
I have to admit having been under the spell of this music played on piano for a while, but first really discovered it in the 1970s with a recording to which I’m still very attached, that of Gustav Leonhardt, which I still have in the form of a chunky box of LPs with BASF on the label. The Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CD re-release of this seems to be well due for a budget edition. There are numerous other performers on harpsichord who I’ve found more or less attractive. Toon Koopman, whose musicianship I otherwise hold in very high regard, was an almost instant and surprising reject on Erato; Anthony Newman on 903 Records is good but a trifle imperious, and with a close recording which can prove fatiguing; Peter Watchorn on the Musica Omnia label is warmly expressive and arguably too far towards a romantic approach, but more importantly he seems reluctant to whip up excitement, taking too many tempi on the more stately side of interesting. A more realistic choice is Ottavio Dantone on the ARTS label, also giving the music plenty of time to breathe, but far more on top of the kind of musicality which makes the preludes expressive and inspiring, and the fugues vibrant and alive. Bob van Asperen is also very fine on the Virgin Classics label, with a nicely sonorous sound, a good sense of sustain, superb articulation and plenty of variety in terms of tempi.
These are all essential qualities in a harpsichord recording of this huge masterpiece. You want a recording which captures the colour of the instrument without giving you proximity neuralgia, a nice acoustic to balance tone and clarity, and most importantly, you want an instrument which has a reasonably subtle attack to the notes, a good sustaining quality and a finely stacked set of sweetly ringing harmonics. The 1624 Ruckers instrument used in this fine Capriccio/SWR recording has all of these things as well as a notable pedigree which is outlined in the booklet. The restorer Christopher Clarke describes the tuning used for the recording as ‘circulating irregular’ temperament, ‘permitting every key but giving a specific colour to each.’ The evidence for this can be found in the pungent fragrance given to marvellously chromatic fugues like No. 12 in F minor from book 1. The recording has been made in a fairly intimate acoustic, but not so dry as to compromise expression. To my ears it sounds pretty much ideal. Recorded a year apart, there is a very slight change in quality between books 1 and 2, with the second volume sounding as if there is a mild mid-range shift of some kind and maybe a few millimetres extra distance between the instrument and microphones. This is by no means disturbing, though my instinct says that book 1 is preferable and the more natural sounding of the two sessions.
As for the performance there are also barely any criticisms to be made. Christine Schornsheim has built a strong reputation on a variety of keyboards including fortepiano, founded in part on a training which has included master-classes from Gustav Leonhardt, and therefore in a line which is in sympathy with the kind of playing I already appreciate. She has a superb sense of proportion and rhythmic accuracy without turning herself into a metronome. There is always a certain amount of give and take in her little rubati which means that the pace of the music is not distorted, but that crucial points can be made and expressive moments are hit naturally and without strange mannerisms. Ornament is done as directed by Bach or as convention dictates, but is kept in reserve and used tastefully to enhance stylistic references or rhetorical features of the score. In her own text on Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, Christine Schornsheim writes about her personal associations with the healing qualities of the music, how its ‘energy brought me inner peace ... and helped my mind focus on the essentials.’ She has been playing these preludes and fugues for years as do most serious keyboard players. Stepping up several gears in order to realise this project she spent years exploring every dimension of the pieces. Performed on her favourite instrument, this has made one of her ‘biggest dreams come true’, and the sense of joy in achieving this pinnacle is communicated through just about every bar of these recordings.
Technically, the performances are as good as faultless, though there is a split note early on, 0:47 seconds into the very first Fugue in C major. Spectacular runs are spectacular, chords which need spreading are spread, fugue voices are clear and consistent, changes in registration help keep up a variety of texture. For instance, the prelude No. 9 in E major in book one is given the light sparkle of an upper register, the following fugue has the added lower octave, which makes for a nice organic development. Schornsheim mirrors this in book 2 with the E major Prelude and Fugue No. 9, which is again very effective. I am glad to find each prelude and fugue given a separate track in this release, which always makes hunting around for specific pieces so much easier.
Picking out highlights in such a superb set of performances is somewhat redundant. Each time you click onto a new track the response is ‘ooh, that’s good’, and the ear and mind take you in from there into world of delicious Bachness, or should that be Bachiosity, or Bachtastic Bachtabulousness ... Book 2 of the two sets is the less frequently recorded of the two, and so it’s good to have such a strong pairing of both in one place. The rich resonance of the Ruckers instrument make the repeated notes which open the prelude No. 3 in C sharp major ripple elegantly; it’s a shame she doesn’t make the triplet long-short rhythm I feel is more correct for the main theme of the Prelude No. 5 in D major, but this is an exciting take on the piece and filled with irrepressible vitality. I love the damped strings of the Prelude No. 7 in flat major and the grandeur of the following fugue, and one of my favourites, the F major Prelude No. 11 unfurls splendidly: Bach’s ornately scaled-up frame for one of the briefest and most playful of the fugues. The Fugue in B flat minor does sound a little laboured; the slight delay to the placement of notes in the first half of the opening subject turning out to be a rod for the back of the entire piece, but such lapses are extremely rare.
This is a nicely packaged set, with a foldout pack which uses one of the inner surfaces to give a close-up of the Ruckers harpsichord with its marvellous landscape on the inside of the lid. A wondrously fresh sounding and superbly performed recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, this is very easy to recommend to those who favour harpsichord versions of the work, as well, I hope, as being a persuasive introduction to those more enamoured of the work recorded on piano.
A fine synergy: superb instrument, performer and recording.