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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier: Book I, BWV 846-869 [104:11]
Keith Jarrett (piano)
rec. live, 7 March 1987, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York
ECM NEW SERIES 2627/28 (4818016) [2 CDs: 50:42 + 53:39]

Keith Jarrett recorded Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in February 1987, and on 7th March 1987, in advance the release of the studio set in 1988, he performed the complete WTC Book I for a very well-behaved audience in upstate New York in the excellent acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Any coughs sound muted and distant, as does Jarrett’s occasional singing-along with the music. I’ve had the studio recording in my collection for decades, but I have to admit it hasn’t seen much air time. This is not because of Jarrett’s relatively straight performance. He has said that “this music does not need my assistance. The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me… The very direction of the lines, the moving lines of notes are inherently expressive”, and I would agree with all of that. Delving into my archive and listening again, I find myself once again unimpressed by the lack of sparkle and colour in the piano sound of ECM’s recording. I have to admit it sounds better on some of my current equipment than I recall, and it’s not truly bad as such, just a bit ‘flat’ or ‘boxy’, and for a work spanning roughly two hours including a break you want something a bit more involving.

ECM has understandably sat on this live recording, no doubt not wanting to compete with its own original release and those of the likes of Till Fellner (review), but nearly 30 years is something of a stretch. Fans of the original need have no fears about acquiring this live version as a supplement, or maybe even a replacement. The piano sound is very good, with more of those upper harmonics in evidence that give the sound a lively edge that is preferable over the studio recording to my ears. Timings and tempi are, as you might expect, broadly similar in both versions, but Jarrett’s playing feels a touch more relaxed and flexible – he just seems more at home in front of an audience. This is symbolised in that famous first Prelude in C major, in which he holds onto the first note for a fraction, giving the feel of embarking on that long journey rather than just launching in as in the studio version, a feeling of person-to-person communication rather than person-to-ether.

As with any live performance you can expect one or two slips, and we have a few. Towards the end of the D major fugue, early on in the following D minor prelude and during the F-sharp major fugue for instance, but these are minor blips in a very good performance indeed. Is it a ‘great’ performance? These things are subjective, but there are moments when that ‘inherent expressiveness’ can indeed use just a little more intervention. Something like that gorgeous Fugue in D minor from someone like Roger Woodward (review) has just a little more space and narrative shape and content than with Jarrett, who does in fairness still have plenty of dynamic variety. In this case Jarrett keeps things buttoned-up in a more compact sound-world, and after really close listening you have less of the feeling that you need to step away and have a cup of coffee or a sponge down. There are however plenty of instances where Jarrett’s playing is as free and expressive as you could desire, and the following Prelude in E-flat major has touches of rubato and flow that carry us on waves of delight. There’s plenty of fun in this recording as well, with an uplifting bounce in the Fugue in E-flat major that is guaranteed to raise a smile.

There are indeed moments where one might wish for a touch more romance, but the more you listen to and live with this live recording the more you come to appreciate Jarrett’s refinement and sense of engagement with The Well-Tempered Clavier. This is by no means absent in the studio recording, but every time I did an A/B comparison with the live version I felt more of the urge to listen on rather than just dip in and sample, and that studio sound never really gets any better. Clarity in the voicing of each prelude and fugue is superb, and Jarrett’s use of the pedal is judiciously sparing and by no means over-done even where applied. There are few enough live recordings of Bach’s Book I, and one of the advantages is that sense of traversal, of time over the entire span of the work as well as in the microcosm of each prelude and fugue. The final Fugue in B minor sounds hard-won and valedictory, though you can shave off around 40 seconds for applause at the end.

Another artist who has performed this live on many occasions is Angela Hewitt (review), and her 2008 recording has a comparable sense of greater freedom over her earlier late 1990s release. Hewitt takes more time over her Bach and is more ‘pianistic’ than Jarrett, adding more poetry without leading us too far astray down the path of over-romanticising the music. Others may disagree on this, but you can love both. Hewitt is more feet-in-slippers with the cat next to a nice fire in the hearth where Jarrett is no-nonsense use the stairs rather than the elevator and all gadgets charged up and ready to go-go. There are no booklet notes but this is a release that has its own market already in place, and I can’t imagine anyone feeling short-changed.

Dominy Clements

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