Ten years ago Angela Hewitt recorded a version of The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I which dazzled the critical world and record-buying public. It was followed shortly afterwards by Book II which was similarly received. Now, fresh from her Bach World Tour—in which she performed the complete Well-Tempered Clavier from August 2007 until the end of October 2008 in 58 cities in 21 countries on six continents—Angela has made an entirely new recording of this most iconic of keyboard works.
As a young pianist, András Schiff earned wide esteem for his 1980s recordings of the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach; in recent years, as part of his long term relationship with ECM, he has gone back to Bach as a sage veteran, earning more acclaim for his New Series recordings of the Goldberg Variations (2003) and the six Partitas (2009). Now, using his own Steinway, Schiff turns his focus to the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier, making studio recordings in Lugano of both books for this 4-CD set.
The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperirte Clavier in the original German title), BWV 846–893, is a collection of solo keyboard music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. He first gave the title to a book of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, dated 1722, composed "for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study." Bach later compiled a second book of the same kind, dated 1742, but titled it only "Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues." The two works are now usually considered to comprise The Well-Tempered Clavier and are referred to respectively as Books I and II. The Well-Tempered Clavier is generally regarded as one of the most influential works in the history of Western classical music...
There's nothing at all wrong with Maurizio Pollini's 2009 performance of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. The Italian pianist's intellectual lucidity, interpretive clarity, and technical virtuosity are apparent in every prelude and fugue, and his probing insights and penetrating analysis inform every note. However, there is almost nothing right with the sound quality of the recording. The piano sounds too distant, making it hard to hear precisely what Pollini is doing, but oddly, the ambient sound is too present, making every extraneous noise too loud. One should not hear the pedals being pressed and lifted, much less the clatter of the hammers and the twanging of the strings above the sound of the music. Worse yet, one can hear what sounds like every breath Pollini takes nearly as loudly as every note he plays. These are all grievous flaws that should have been eliminated, and their presence fatally undermines the brilliance of Pollini's performances. A reengineered version of these performances would be most welcome, but the present recording is so flawed that it virtually destroys Pollini's playing.
In his recording of Bach's 48 Colin Tilney, unlike his fellow competitors in the same repertory, plays both a clavichord (Book 1) and a harpsichord (Book 2). Why not? Bach's title for the first book of 24 preludes and fugues, The Well-tempered Clavier leaves both this issue and that of tuning wide open. The clavichord was a favourite instrument of Bach's, so was the harpsichord and the organ; indeed, I am sorry that Tilney does not include a chamber organ since some of the pieces, the E major Prelude and Fugue (Book 2), for instance, seem well-suited to it. Tilney's performance of the 48 differs again from almost if not all others in the sequence which he adopts in playing the preludes and fugues. But an apparently random approach is in fact nothing of the kind, but one that is directly linked with tuning. We know that Bach himself was a master in matters of tuning as he was in all other aspects of his craft. What we do not know is the exact nature of his tuning.