"It's rare to hear such musical integrity and extraordinary pianism."
-New York Times
During the 1980s I heard Maurizio Pollini perform Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book I live in concert. At the time his interpretations seemed straightforward, direct, and highly focused, never extreme regarding tempo choices, sometimes reserved, rarely humorous, ornamentally conservative, and not without moments of vehement dynamism and limpid sensitivity. At long last, Pollini has brought the "48" to the recording studio, having, by his own account, restudied and rethought the scores.
Still, my 2009 impressions largely remain the same as a quarter-century ago. The pianist eschews tempo modification as much as possible and will have none of the agogic pauses or marked contrasts between legato and detached articulation characterizing Angela Hewitt's 2008 Hyperion remakes. Unlike Bach players who underline fugal subject entrances and leave the rest of the counterpoint to play itself, Pollini never allows a line's melodic trajectory to slacken. You clearly hear this in the C minor, C-sharp major, D-sharp minor, F-sharp major, G minor, B minor, and the difficult-to-voice A minor fugues, and in slow-moving preludes like the E-flat minor and B-flat minor, where the accompanying chords' linear moving parts make themselves felt without artificial highlighting.
The aforementioned vehemence sometimes yields heavy and even blurred textures, as in the G major and C minor preludes (the latter contains a tiny wrong note that may be unique among Pollini's studio efforts!). At the same time, the G minor prelude's sonorous half-tints and gorgeously tapered trills alone defy any notion of Pollini as a cold pianist. And if the C major prelude's subtle gradations of touch and voicing don't register upon first hearing, they certainly will by the second or third time. In sum, there's no disputing the integrity and stature of Pollini's Bach, although, among contemporaneous editions, Koroliov and Ashkenazy take top honors for crispness and joy.
-Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Well Tempered Clavier
About Well Tempered Clavier I on 'bach-cantatas.com'
исполнение WTK 1 (.Afanassiev)
исполнение WTK 2 (V.Afanassiev)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (S.Feinberg)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (S.Richter)
исполнение WTK 1,2 (V.Ashkenazy)
исполнение WTK 1 (G.Gould)
исполнение WTK 1 (M.Pollini)
исполнение WTK 2 (G.Gould)
исполнение WTK 1 (K.Jarrett)
исполнение WTK 2 (K.Jarrett)
========= from the cover ==========
"Let the 'Well-Tempered Clavier' be your daily bread"
1722, the date that appears on the autograph of the first book of Das wohltem-perierte Clavier (the "clavier", or keyboard of the title being applicable to any number of keyboard instruments) merely marks the end point of a compositional process stretching back years. Evidence of this can be seen in the presence of earlier versions of a dozen or so preludes, alongside the two- and three-part inventions, among other pieces, in the Clavier-Buchlein fur Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In their original form, preludes were free-standing pieces but Bach expanded them to make them more substantial in relation to their accompanying fugues. The title of the autograph, a mixture of German and Latin written in different characters, points both to the methodical nature of the collection and to its dual intention of both educating and pleasing: a practical demonstration in 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys of what a tuning based on a particular temperament was now capable of, the book is meant to serve "for the profit and use of young musicians desiring instruction, and equally for the particular delight of those who are already skilled in this discipline."
Schumann certainly had both aims in mind when he made the recommendation to "let the 'Well-Tempered Clavier' be your daily bread" in his Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln published in 1850, but the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier were already being held up as a model fifty years previously, and the first three published editions that appeared simultaneously at the beginning of the 19th century were followed by a host of others. Even after Bach's death, the two books continued to be regarded as masterpieces, albeit among a restricted circle, since manuscript copies remained in circulation, like the one that Baron Gottfried van Swieten (who had been the Habsburg imperial ambassador to Berlin) showed to Mozart.
In 1722 Rameau published his Traite de I'harmonie reduite a ses principes naturels, and in the same year Bach completed a work in which he explored all the keys according to the principle of "good" temperament as set out by Andreas Werck-meister (1645-1706). In broad terms, this meant contriving to eliminate the minute differences between the tones and semitones of the natural scale by treating all the semitones in the octave as equal. It is worth remembering that in 1702, before The Well-Tempered Clavier appeared, J. C. F. Fischer had published a collection of twenty preludes and fugues under the title Ariadne musica.
In its complexity and variety of conception, The Well-Tempered Clavier stands as one of the great examples of Bach's striving for completeness, for a grand compendium exploring a wide variety of compositional types. In this case, he chose the simple succession of preludes and fugues, a long-established format (which, for some, already appeared outdated). A number of years before the completion of The Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) wrote that there was no point "in racking one's brains" (den Kopff zu zerbrechen) constructing fugues. For others, however, it was clear, even at the time, that Bach was here giving students of counterpoint a lesson in practical composition through a series of examples, and at the same time providing a benchmark in the teaching of keyboard players. And many outstanding musicians of later generations found in it the nourishment (Schumann's "daily bread") they required.
The preludes are far more strongly defined, autonomous pieces of music than the simple introductions in which they have their origins, and each one acquires a particular weight in relation to the fugue it is paired with. Those based on arpeggios or other repeated figurations belong to the older tradition, where themes or motifs are either absent or less important than the sequence of harmonies. The first prelude, for example, consists entirely of arpeggios (and prompted Gounod's unfortunate paraphrase, the famous Ave Maria). Often, however, motoric figurations and effective motivic elements coexist in preludes of this kind.
Other preludes are written in a style similar to that of the two- and three-part inventions, while still others are improvisatory and toccata-like in character. Some are so intensely expressive that they are reminiscent of great ariosos. The Prelude in Aflat major (no. 17) is designed like a concerto movement, while the Prelude in B minor (no. 24) is in two parts, with a repeat sign after each section. Certainly, such brief comments are not intended to provide specific categories in which to classify Bach's astonishing outpouring of ideas, but they can hopefully provide some reference points in understanding the extraordinary variety of the different pieces.
The same can be said of the fugues, eleven of which are for three voices, ten for four, one for two (no. 10) and two for five voices (nos. 4 and 22). Taken together, they demonstrate a huge variety of contrapuntal procedures, but a general distinction can still be made between the more rigorously and the more freely worked fugues. One notable feature is Bach's careful choice of thematic material, which not only defines the character of the particular fugue but helps to identify its stylistic links, from the motet or ricercare to dance forms, while the themes themselves can be either "vocal" or instrumental in nature, and some of extraordinary expressive power. The fugues are for the most part concise, yet in some instances generously proportioned, such as the final fugue, where the subject itself is quite exceptional: a long-breathed theme including all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, it opens up all manner of melodic and harmonic possibilities.
There is a sorrowful intensity to the Prelude in B flat minor, no. 22, a piece whose tempo approaches that of the opening Sonatina of Cantata 106, "Actus tragicus", while the unusual interval of a ninth between the second and third notes (preceded by a rest) of the subject of the following five-voice fugue is strikingly expressive.
The other five-voice Fugue, no. 4 in C sharp minor, is also quite distinctive: with its three themes, it is one of the longest, most complex and contrapuntally dense of all. It is preceded by a profoundly expressive prelude that exemplifies the cantabile "arioso" type (and makes a powerful contrast with the virtuosic, motorically driven vitality of the Prelude no. 3 in C sharp major). Its concentrated expressivity combines with Bach's structural assurance to create a mood of unrelenting tension.
One of the very lavishly worked pieces is the Fugue in D sharp minor, no. 8, which is also preceded by an altogether cantabile prelude (notated in E flat minor). In conclusion, it can be broadly said that Bach's especially rigorous and painstaking counterpoint (as well as the most expressive thematic material) is to be found in the minor-key fugues in the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The major-key fugues, on the other hand, cover a whole range of different styles, from pieces related to dance forms to brilliant displays of vitality.
-Paolo Petazzi (translation: Kenneth Chalmers)