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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier
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]

John Butt has a distinguished reputation as an organist and harpsichordist, and collectors of recordings from the Linn label will associate his name with distinguished releases from the Dunedin Consort. Extensive and informative booklet notes with this recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier reveal something of the history and content of the work, as well as a substantial section on approach to performance. There is a link to the Linn site with an extended version of these notes which also includes references, and anyone studying Bach’s seminal masterpiece or just keen on enriching their knowledge and appreciation of its workings will find much to engage with here.

Presented in a package which seems to fold out forever, this is an edition with a luxury feel and one of those items which continues to hold me back from diving fully into the intangible realm of downloads. I’m a harpsichord fan and grew up on this music played by Gustav Leonhardt on a recording now available from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. This Linn recording is superbly produced, and is a very fine recording of the harpsichord used by the Dunedin Consort, a copy of one by a builder called Michael Mietke from about 1702-4. The sound is very easy on the ears and by no means fatiguing as can so easily be the case with harpsichord.

Starting out with this recording I was presented with a quandary. I’m all for new approaches and am by no means attached to any particular school when it comes to this music: Leonhardt, Gould, Richter, Woodward or Hewitt, I’m prepared to admire the qualities of a recording and also prepared to admit my own shortcomings if there are aspects of a performance I may have misunderstood. Elements in John Butt’s wohltemperierte have Marmite qualities: you will either love them or hate them, so my advice even before really getting my teeth into the actual music is to take a listen from the Linn website. You can then agree or disagree with anything I have to say.

There some good things about this set, and we’ll come to those later. The massive initial hump I have to get over is the C major Prelude from Book I, which Butt plays as a strange sort of fantasie, lingering on notes as if musing on their sound, giving expression with odd inflections and a kind of rubato which is difficult to pin down. As I say, I’m all for different approaches and would hate the idea we all have to play this miniature masterpiece the same way, but a sense of flow and logic, with expressive rise and fall following Bach’s harmonic tensions and relaxations would seem to be sort of a minimum requirement. One of my old RAM teachers pointed out that every note in this piece has a melodic as well as a harmonic function, and if this is singing I’m afraid the audition has not been passed. Not all of the preludes and fugues meet quite this dire fate, but John Butt often makes it his mission to massage rhythms for expressive effect, and this means rising and falling, stopping and dashing forward in an often discomforting fashion.

You can sort of get used to this, but I find it picky and distracting. The Book I Fugue No. 9 in E major for instance has an ongoing flow of sixteenth notes, the first and third beat of the 4/4 bar Butt likes to give extra emphasis. This might be fine, were it not Bach’s idea to give the main fugue theme its upbeat in an eighth note leading to the third beat of the bar. This leads to inconsistency and a kind of musical obfuscation which just gives me the niggles, capped by the rushed notes in the last bar. Another aspect which worries me is wandering tempi, such as in the Fugue No 10 in E minor from Book I. The second bar is clearly faster than the first bar, and I defy you to ‘air conduct’ the piece without becoming lost at least halfway though. Again, each unto his own and heaven knows we can happily use a fresh look at this music with every new recording, but this is becoming something of a problem.

I don’t want to focus on my perceived negatives, and am in awe of Butt’s keyboard prowess. The final track on CD 1 is the Fugue No. 12 in F minor, the labyrinthine complexities of which are performed with masterly skill and a fine sense of direction. There are many tracks from this collection which are perfectly fine, but delving into Book II and hopes of coming away amongst roses are once again seen wilting. I’m sorry, but I can’t warm to the picky rhythmic finesses which plague the first Prelude in C major, which is garlanded with so many little expressive manipulations that the urge must be to drop all pretence, halve the tempo and take this music into the realms of Couperin or Rameau rather than J.S. Bach. John Butt talks about tempo in his booklet note at some length, and I have only a few disagreements with him on this subject, with a few pieces such as the Prelude No. 16 from Book 1 which seems hacked through with undue haste. Butt is a scholarly performer and a superb technician, and as such I have no doubt he could play this music any way he wanted. I’m not sure however where the idea comes from that this is the way Bach or anyone else would want to hear it. Mannerisms such as emphases on the strong beats can work very nicely, but when applied to every bar such as with the Prelude No. 3 in C sharp minor in Book II it starts to give the music an unfortunate limp.

Numbers with more rapid tempi can be exciting and are performed with less complex interpretative affect, and the Prelude No. 6 in D minor from Book II is a decent example, a few moments of unexpected acceleration excepted – Butt has a tendency to rush in odd places – the following fugue is also fine. This is perhaps the only way I can sum up this Well Tempered Clavier, as being something which can be respected and admired, but to my mind too often too minutely micro-managed in terms of drawing out and exploring expressive points which Bach makes clearly enough with the notes as written.

Recordings of the WTC on harpsichord are less common these days now that truckloads of pianists are taking on this repertoire, but one recent example is a very fine recording by Christine Schornsheim on the Capriccio label (see review). Schornsheim is by no means averse to adding expressive rise and fall to this music, but manages to do this with a sense of natural breathing, creating emphasis at expressive points but doing this amidst a flow which embraces each piece in its entirety rather than seeking nuance from within each phrase or bar. The rather grander and more jangly harpsichord sound from this recording contrasts with the more intimate balance from Linn, but this is a matter of personal taste. Just compare that Prelude in C major from Book I. Schornsheim allows a certain amount of expressive phrasing, but also allows the sonorities of the chords to build their harmonics in line with the scientific explorations of Mersenne and Sauveur. This delivers an event of so much greater impact than one in which the smaller bones of the beast have been removed, examined in detail, and reinserted to make an image which is no doubt pretty in the mind of the interpreter, but increasingly remote from nature’s original.

There are things to admire in this recording of Das wohltemperierte Klavier. Once you’ve leapt over the hump which is the first Prelude in C major there are plenty of more conventionally performed pieces and the production is exceptionally good, but for me there are too many distracting questions this recording asks of the listener. By no means are all of the preludes and fugues played with extreme expressive emphases or oddly rushed passages, but this in itself is a serious point. The question of expressive rhythmic distortion demands answers about consistency: if one more or less lyrical movement is going to be played in this way then why aren’t others? Are we to consider this a new way of looking at how the musician believes this is how Bach would have expected to hear his music – or is this an extra layer of interpretation intended to raise the music’s expressive potential beyond that written by the composer?

I should get down from the fence, and it would be all too easy to dismiss this set as a great mound of notes which doesn’t compete with the best of the rest. It’s not my place to make up the listeners' minds for them however. Have a listen and see what you think: you may be pleasantly surprised.

Dominy Clements