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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Book I, BWV 846-869 (1722)
Book II, BWV870-893 (ca.1739 – 1744)
Heidrun Holtmann (piano)
rec. 2016, Studio Britz
MUSICAPHON M56922 [4 CDs: 232:56]

There is no shortage of recordings of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier around these days, and each new version will always have its work cut out to make a strong impression. Heidrun Holtmann has appeared frequently on the international festival circuit and she has recorded numerous CDs, though this is the first time I’ve encountered her playing.

With a fairly dry recording that gives the impression of having the microphones just a little too far from the instrument so that wall and floor reflections veil the source slightly, this is a sound you may find you want to tweak a fraction to bring out some more treble sparkle. Even with treble-rich headphones I found this a bit frustrating to start with. One’s ears become accustomed of course and turning up the volume helps, but there could easily be colours in the playing here that are being missed due to the generalised nature of the sonics.

Holtmann is brisk and business-like in the opening C major Prelude and Fugue BWV 846, and these in many ways characterise this set. That famous Prelude is played more as a harmonic sequence than as each note having melodic weight, the whole thing lasting 1:36. This is a valid choice of course, but lacks magic. The following Fugue shows Holtmann’s tendency to lean forward in terms of tempo as textures thicken. This is entirely less harmful than slowing down, but if you are in the passenger seat you may find yourself instinctively touching an invisible brake from time to time. Not everything is helter-skelter fast of course. Most of Holtmann’s tempi are within conventional parameters, and her Fugue BWV 849 is nicely sustained – to start with at least; the tempo rises by at least 1/3rd when things start heating up.

Ornamentation is kept to a minimum, and though there are some appropriate trills and mordents here and there these are not a particularly strong element in the playing. Holtmann’s playing has an admirable balance and clarity. She avoids using the pedal for the most part, and certainly avoids rubato while allowing expressive elasticity to follow Bach’s rise and fall. Her characterisation between the pieces is one which allows the music to speak for itself: the playfulness in the Fugue BWV 848 contrasting for instance with the following Prelude BWV 849, but I found myself wanting just a little more personality – just that extra layer of expressive depth to take things to that upper level of involvement and transcendence. The same goes for favourite moments in Book II such as that floating wonder that opens the Prelude BWV 872. There is no mystery to marvel at here. The music is laid before us and we can appreciate and enjoy it all in a kind of austere and mildly Calvinistic way, but I for one wasn’t transfixed and transformed by the end.

When it comes to the Well-Tempered Clavier on piano I have a few recordings to which I always return with pleasure. Samuel Feinberg’s 1950s recording (review) is more ‘historical’ in sound quality than its vintage might suggest, but has enough fine character to keep one entranced. Roger Woodward (review) is very special indeed and my default choice for its spacious eloquence at the moment, though I still very much admire Angela Hewitt (review). Looking at past reviews I find myself vacillating somewhat in this regard, but names such as Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter retain their power in this work. I’ve enjoyed hearing Heidrun Holtmann’s recording and can certainly appreciate its skilfully crafted finer points, but is doesn’t unseat any of my old favourites.

Dominy Clements

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