Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier


H. L. Mencken’s voluminous journalism includes an occasional foray into music criticism. In 1912, writing in a magazine called The Smart Set. Mencken attempted to summarize the aesthetics of several composers in some tiny prose poems. Thus Beethoven became "The glory that was Greece ... the grandeur that was Rome ... a laugh." Chopin was represented by "Two embalmers at work upon a minor poet ... the scent of tuberoses ... Autumn rain" and Debussy by "A pretty girl with one blue eye and one brown eye." Probably the best, and certainly the most elegant, of these encapsulations was the one Mencken provided for Johann Sebastian Bach. "Genesis 1:1" he wrote, and let it stand ...



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Catalogue Number

Book I, BWV 846 - BWV 869

CD 1 - Preludes & Fugues Nos. 1-12

CD 2 - Preludes & Fugues Nos. 13-24

Book II, BWV 870 -  BWV 893

CD 3 - Preludes & Fugues Nos. 1-12

CD 4 - Preludes & Fugues Nos. 13-24


Vladimir Feltsman, the Russian-émigré, made a sensational début some twenty-two years ago at Carnegie Hall with the works of Beethoven, Messiaen, Schubert and Schumann. Equipped with a vast repertory, Mr. Feltsman’s discography encompasses the music of Baroque masters to the lesser-known 20th century composers with the likes of Alexander Knayfel and Valentin Silvestrov.

Of all composers, Mr. Feltsman has expressed a lifelong devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He has become known as a Bach interpreter of the highest order. His commitment witnessed a cycle of highly acclaimed concerts in the 1990s, which included Bach’s major keyboard works. This spanned four consecutive seasons (1992-1996) at the Tisch Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. The present 1993 recording of the complete books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) was originally released on the now-defunct MusicMasters label. Mr. Feltsman’s Bach performances are both scholarly and revealing. He has an irrefutably keen sense of rhythmic control and achieves this whilst maintaining the most careful shadings of contrapuntal voicing and crisp execution. The result is a collection of refined interpretations that is in a class of its own.

Only a handful of pianists nowadays have the courage to programme these works, let alone the courage to record them, as Mr. Feltsman has. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is both “a massive theoretical exercise and a deeply compelling work of art,” as Tim Page explains in his liner notes. Has any composition in the history of Western Music made a greater impression on succeeding generations of composers and performers than the “48”, as the two books of 24 Preludes and Fugues have come to be known? Disguised as ‘study pieces’ for Bach’s wife and children initially, the WTC broke traditional ground by revealing that the 18th century tonal system could be expanded with unforeseen qualities, all in a handful of 24 keys. Each piece in the WTC pushed newer limits on the piano as a keyboard instrument of expression. It is the duty for the pianist to unmask these qualities.

Feltsman lays bare a sense of serene exploration with the first Prelude in C Major. He reveals the happy communion of black keys in the third Prelude in C Sharp Major of Book I, the improvisatory nature of the tenth Fugue in E Minor and the tragedy inherent in the twenty-second Fugue in B Flat Minor of Book II. Throughout he lavishes great care on maintaining a balance between compression and expansion, unity and diversity, density and clarity. At times I found it difficult to tell whether what I was hearing was a piano or a harpsichord. Listen for instance to the twentieth Fugue in A Minor of Book II. I bet Wanda Landowska would have thoroughly welcomed this approach and effect. Four hours of continuous listening to the entire Bach WTC felt like a slideshow of a lifetime. I recall attending a recital in Colorado several years ago when Mr. Feltsman performed the WTC Book I. At the end of the recital, I wondered if he would be able to stand-up and walk-off the stage after two hours of such spiritual catharsis. I had a very similar experience after hearing these performances today.

Mr. Feltsman’s magical account of the sixteenth Prelude in G Minor of Book I, which starts with a trill is so persuasive in its power to unfold one narrative passage after another. This Prelude in G Minor suggests to me Bach’s musical depiction of the life-cycle of a butterfly from cocoon to hovering maturity. Likewise impressive is the astonishing power of the three ascending chords in the twenty-second Fugue in B Flat Minor of Book II. Feltsman’s playing and phrase structure has a trademark I would describe as “agogic expressionism.” At every turn he maintains an intimate link with the secular spirit of the music and this is done humbly and without sounding artificial. This is a welcome addition to the Well-Tempered Clavier discography. I am however dumbfounded by the set’s cover image. Are these metal screws? Telephone cords? What possible association does this have with Bach or the WTC? That said my admiration for Mr. Feltsman’s artistic performance is undimmed by this enigma.

Nimbus have maintained the fine balance of the original DDD source recording, where the microphone was placed close to the piano without being intrusive. Original notes from Tim Page add to the value of this re-release. They equal in excellence those he has written for various Glenn Gould discs. On this evidence classical collectors should be keeping a watchful eye on subsequent releases from Nimbus.

Patrick P.L. Lam,

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