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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das wohltemperierte Klavier
Book I, BWV 846-869 [89:23]
Book II, BWV 870-893 [122:54]
John Butt (harpsichord)
rec. 15-18 July 2013, St Martin’s East, Hampshire, UK
LINN RECORDS CKD463 [4 CDs: 43:32 + 45:55 + 59:44 + 63:10]

When it comes to the Well-Tempered Clavier I must admit to having a soft spot for Marga Scheurich-Henschel’s 1984 recording (Da Camera Magna 77 066-69). It was the first time I had heard the complete work performed on a harpsichord. It not only opened my eyes, but completely changed my opinion. As a result, a work that I had found heavy and somewhat dull when listened to on the piano, became light and airy, almost luminous, and full of invention. This has led me to investigate other recordings on harpsichord, including Gustav Leonhardt’s well respected version on DHM, and the recent version, sadly only of Book II, by Christophe Rousset (A070). That said, I still return to Scheurich-Henschel’s recording, so I was intrigued to hear John Butt’s new recording and compare it to the others I know.

The first thing that hits you is the tempo. Butt speeds through the opening C Major Prelude in 2 minutes, some 30 seconds faster than Scheurich-Henschel. Although he backs up his tempo choices in his copious booklet notes, and even longer notes on the Linn website, it does not improve the music. He keeps up this high tempo approach throughout and is nearly half an hour quicker in Book I alone, whilst only sixteen minutes quicker in Book II. Sometimes it works well; then again there are times when the virtuosity of the performer takes precedence over the music. Compare this with Scheurich-Henschel who gives the music time to breathe and develop. At the other extreme, there is Christophe Rousset, whose recording of Book II is the slowest I know lasting just over 2 hours and 37 minutes — but what playing.

John Butt also on occasion has the odd knack of over-accentuating specific notes within each piece. There are times when it almost sounds as if he is wishing for a sustaining pedal on his instrument. This does however bring out the organ quality of some of the pieces. Having heard a selection performed on the organ recently, I can tell you that they lend themselves well to playing on the ‘king of instruments’. On the other hand, it can also sound, at the worst extreme, like bad editing by the engineers. It is clear however, that this is purely down to the performance style of Butt and nothing to do with editing. Whilst it is always good to have different approaches to familiar works, it does not always come off. There are times when Butt shines and you wish that he would perform the complete work in that manner. Sadly he doesn’t, and that is when his performance grates.

This then is very much a mixed bag with both highs and lows. There are two major highs along with the informative notes which I have not touched upon yet. The peaks are the harpsichord itself, which has a lovely rounded tone, and the recorded sound, which is the best I have come across for a complete recording of ‘the 48’. There are some who will find John Butt’s approach exhilarating and exciting but I am afraid I am not one of them. I am more than happy to keep listening to Marga Scheurich-Henschel, even though her recording sounds somewhat dated in comparison. If Rousset ever gets around to recording the first book, that might just win over my affections.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Dominy Clements