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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Book 1 (BWV 846-869) [108:36]
Book 2 (BWV 870-893) [140:39]
Frédéric Desenclos (organ)
rec. 1998-2001
ALPHA 819 [4 CDs: 249:15]

I have a theory about the booklet notes for this release: that they should be at least as open to interpretation as the very music about which they ramblingly pontificate. The point is made that transcriptions of The Well-Tempered Clavier onto anything other than a harpsichord is by no means a betrayal of the music, and it’s hard to imagine the composer himself would never ever have played any of them on an organ. In many ways it is therefore surprising that few recording artists have taken this great cycle beyond the harpsichord, clavichord or piano. Robert Levin threw in some organ playing on his recording for Hänssler Classics (see review of Book II), but I don’t know of any other complete set to compete with this by Frédéric Desenclos.

J.S. Bach’s music arguably sounds good on any instrument, though I still await a première cycle of his cantatas accompanied by a ukulele band. This is true of transcriptions such as this one, but there are inevitable differences between performances on organ or the more familiar harpsichord and piano – one of the most immediate being the change between attack and decay in notes from the latter, where an organ note has none. Organists have to pay particular attention to their note durations and the ends of notes, and with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier the organist may have to make choices which turn the original into something effective for his instrument. Bach will however usually bind notes which sustain over numerous beats in his manuscripts, and while the organ sustain changes the weight of these notes as the music flows the harmonic rhythms and progressions remain intact. Even the first Prelude in C major from Book I sees the left-hand notes sustained just as Desenclos does in his performance – something which we normally miss with other keyboards as legato playing often makes all of the notes appear to have an equivalent value or ‘sustain’. These are changes to which one can adjust quite readily in my opinion, and Desenclos’s musical choices and sensitivity rarely yield question marks which – even if they arise – soon become resolved through careful listening or reference to Bach’s manuscripts.

One other aspect which may take a little time for adjustment is the scale of the sound. We’ve come to enjoy Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as something of a personal delight, the intimate one-to-one of a performer on piano or harpsichord as frequently encountered if not more so than a recording which seems intended to fill a large concert hall. Four different instruments are used for this set, and the Saint-Etienne organ on CD 3 for the first half of Book II is a little less grand in effect, but the effect of this music played in large acoustics such as the Sint-Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel (CD4) or an old friend of mine, the Garrels organ in the Old-Catholic Church in The Hague, can blow away any illusions you may have had about certain pieces being only suitable for the late-night candle-lit chamber music environment.

Once we’ve passed these hurdles and start taking these recordings for what they are we can sit back and revel in this fine music in its new clothes. Frédéric Desenclos doesn’t go in for unconventional tempi, and nor do his choices of instruments or registrations demand serious adaptations of what you would normally accept as common practice for this music. There are some superb transitions as well, such as that from the playful sparkle of the Fugue in G major to the stern growl of the Prelude in G minor in Book II (CD 4). You might be concerned about hearing changes of instrument half way through both books of the WTC, but the qualities in the recordings have their own consistency, and Bach’s innate sense of a musical journey which takes us away, brings us back, and rewards us with a final B minor apotheosis, fits this scheme without trauma. Changes of pitch between discs is also not an issue. Some instruments are more ‘well-tempered’ than others, though this is of course what exploring distant keys would have been all about in Bach’s time. Specifications for each instrument are given in the booklet.

Rather than going through every piece it’s easier to sum up by highlighting my admiration for Desenclos’s delivery of a collection filled with delightful contrasts of sonority. Interest never falters, and if you like Bach’s organ music in general then it is the easiest thing in the world to accept this wonderful music into the canon. If you are not so keen on the organ but love the WTC then this probably won’t be for you, but I would still recommend giving it a try: it may after all become your passport into the wonderful world of Bach’s ‘real’ organ works. Are there any criticisms? Not really. On points of taste there are one or two pieces I like less than others, such as the rather choppy Fugue in C sharp major from Book II, but these would all be minor observations. This is a very fine Well-Tempered Clavier and goes way beyond experiment, taking some of the finest keyboard music ever written into stunning new realms.

Dominy Clements
Recording details
Book 1 1-12: Organ of the Old Catholic Church – The Hague, Netherlands (R. Garrels 1726 - D.A. Flentrop 1994)
Book 1 13-24: Organ of l’Eglise Saint-Vincent - Lyon (F) (R. Freytag - B. Aubertin 1994)
Book 2 1-12: Organ of l’Eglise Saint-Etienne de Baïgorry (F) (R. Mahler 1999)
Book 2 13-24: Organ of Sint-Maartenskerk – Zaltbommel, Netherlands (Verhofstad 1723 – A. Wolfferts 1786 – Heijneman 1796 N.A. Naber 1860 – S.F. Blank 1986)



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