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Cembal d'Amour

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier BWV 846-893 (Book I 1717-1723, Book II 1738-1742)
Mordecai Shehori (piano)
rec. March 2014 – February 2015, Las Vegas
Only available separately in four volumes
CEMBAL D’AMOUR CD176-79 [4 CDs: 252:55]

This is a most unusual and personalised traversal of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Rather like Mordecai Shehori’s revisionist approach to Chopin’s Etudes (see review), this set of four discs, all available singly, begins from a firmly held premise. In the case of the Etudes it had much to do with overturning received opinion on matters of rhythm, voice-leading and articulation. Here it is much to do with the vocalized nature of Bach’s inspiration and the instrumental means open to him to realise it. Thus, the concerns are tone colour, volume, sustain and—importantly—the ability to overlap tones. This cultivation of a singing line is seen specifically through the prism of a French edition of the WTC of the late 1830s with hand-written instructions by Chopin. He sought to correct mistakes in the existing edition, and added frequent legato and legatissimo instructions. The effect is a constantly singing tone; or an anti-staccato performance, if you prefer. In his notes to the release, from which I have pilfered his rationale and historical background, Shehori lays bare his principles of a singing, vocal interpretation, and the thought that Bach was interested in the Lautenwerck, a Lute-Harpsichord that allowed an increase in tonal range, harmonic richness and the ability to overlap tones.

Thus one hears the diaphanous cantabile of the C major Prelude, the flowing evenness of the C minor Prelude, the voicing clarity of the C sharp major—devoid of pecking staccato, the tone rounded and warm—that ironically takes Shehori closer to a romantic conception of the music than one would ever expect to hear today. The element of Chopinesque bel canto is strongly present in all these readings. There is a consonant dialogue between left and right hands. No verticality infiltrates the rich lyrical E flat minor Prelude, the seraphic chords and expressive refinement remaining paramount preoccupations. You will not encounter the more discursively distributed voicings of Angela Hewitt in her 2008 Hyperion reading in the Prelude in D major; nor will you hear the more graphic and emphatic entry points, trills and rolled chords and overt intensity of Andras Schiff’s ECM reading in that E flat minor Prelude.

One corollary of Shehori’s approach is that the work’s vast schema emerges in a rich horizontality, with limited occasions for verticality, or differentiation of dynamics. Things are deliberately self-limited when it comes to fugal entry points, colouration, and weight. This is because the conception is necessarily one of vocal richness and roundness and evenness, a calmly measured introspection. Thus, the graphic projection of Samuel Feinberg, or the italicized monumentality of Tureck, and the draconianly slower but more muscular and extrovert Nikolayeva are alien to this kind of conception and should be put to one side. Shehori takes a swipe at—but doesn’t name (it’s not necessary)—Glenn Gould in his notes, and this too is most definitely a kind of anti-Gouldian manifesto in Bachian music-making as refracted through a Chopin-inspired formula.

There is no doubting Shehori’s instrumental legerdemain, nor his consistent seriousness of purpose in this undertaking. It should be set apart from what one should have to call conventional performances—however one interprets that, either on piano or harpsichord—and seen specifically in the context of Chopin’s own conception of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. In that respect, it serves valuable purpose.

Jonathan Woolf



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