The Organ

JS Bach Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book 1

JS Bach Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book 1
Dimitri Vassilakis, fortepiano; Christine Auger, harpsichord; Pascal Vigneron, organ fortepiano, harpsichord, organ: tuned to Werckmeister III temperament of A = 442
Quantum QM 7039

This is a release of some importance, but it has to be said at once that its appeal will be almost exclusively for specialists and students of early 18th-century music. Not that music-lovers and record-collectors in general need feel intimidated, but the inherent interest in this release is of an exceptional nature. It contains the first book of JS Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, composed in 1722 (i.e., pre-Leipzig) and written, as the master himself said in his preface, as a teaching-tool for young musicians. Of course, as with all of Bach’s music, it can be appreciated on various levels, but whereas today the aspiring pianist will learn just one keyboard instrument, in Bach’s day a player was expected to be able to master all keyboard instruments, transferring from and to clavichord, harpsichord and organ at will.

It would be futile to deny that there is an element of what one might term ‘eye-music’ in the ‘48’ – for some of the long pedal notes, especially in Book 1 (Book 2 followed about twenty years later), are impossible to sustain on a clavichord, harpsichord or piano, and seem to demand an organ pedal-board (I do not think it has been conclusively shown that Bach possessed a pedal harpsichord). But it is exceptionally rare to hear any of the ‘48’ played on an organ, for various reasons. In the first place, there is already a very large body of fugal compositions by Bach for the organ – so organists, in the main, are not on the look-out for additions, but more importantly, the introduction of an organ brings with it, more so than with the harpsichord, the problem of differing tone-colours within a fugal line. By this, I mean that any line in a fugue, given the on-going nature of the music itself, should have the same tone-colour throughout (for example, in Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue, the composer gives many instances of changes between organ manuals in the Toccata, but there are none in the Fugue). This is not to abjure inherent subtleties of phrasing which illuminate the fugal lines – therein lies the ‘expression’ of the piece – but to change the tone-colour of a line which has begun in one manner and suddenly changes to another – or to a third, or back again – violates Bach’s true nature to the detriment of the music.

By the time Book 1 was composed, the essential achievement of equal temperament had been accomplished, but whereas today most ‘authentic’ performances of 18th-century music are given with a wholly inauthentic blanket pitch of A = 415, a very interesting aspect of this set is that the 24 preludes and fugues are split between three instruments, all tuned to Werckmeister III temperament of A = 442 (the pitch prevalent in London, when Handel first arrived, was A = 422.5). The problem here is that we do not know for certain whether Bach himself was familiar with this temperament, but it has been chosen for these records, because the organ at Seignelay is so tuned. And as the three instruments are tuned to this pitch, it cannot be claimed that this is an ‘authentic’ set of performances, but it is an uncommonly interesting project.

I feel it is a mistake to have substituted a modern Steinway piano for the clavichord; we know that Bach himself much preferred to play the clavichord and I should have preferred to hear those preludes and fugues which are here played on the piano to have been given on the clavichord. It is also questionable to engage three players for this project, for they are not artistically equal, although the tempi adopted by both organist and harpsichordist are almost always consistently slower than we might customarily expect. Christine Auger is a competent harpsichordist, but is technically not entirely in command of these works – the F sharp major Fugue, for example, finds her wanting from about bar 25 to the end, and I was not wholly convinced by the relatively slow tempo for this – Tovey, for example, suggests crotchet = c76, but Auger takes it at about c56. Pascal Vigneron, at the organ, also adopts an extremely slow tempo for the F sharp minor Fugue, which is not, in itself such a bad thing, but the entry of the subject at bar 29 destroys the mood of quite contemplation which this profound Fugue inhabits. In the main, I much prefer the tempi of the pianist, Dimitri Vassilakis, and his part-playing has greater clarity than that of his companions. The choice of which instrument upon which to play the individual preludes and fugues is largely a matter of personal preference, and in the main I would not argue too strongly against the choices made here (but I could imagine the G sharp minor making a better effect on the harpsichord, or – better still - clavichord). I cannot agree with Ms Auger’s consistently staccato manner in the B flat major Fugue, the more so after her admirably fluent playing of the Toccata-like Prelude.

Despite the main choices of instrument and characterisation of each individual piece, the main drawback to this set is the recording quality. All three instruments were recorded in the same church, and it seems that the microphone placing remained the same for each piece. This has meant that in an empty acoustic, the detail of both piano and harpsichord is unclear – even the finest part-playing in the world (which this is not) cannot overcome this inherent obstacle, although the pianist is better in this regard – yet I do not like his intense staccato treatment of the first part of the left hand in the B minor Prelude, followed by a semi-legato repeat; this approach adds nothing to the music and to my ears positively detracts from it. There is no doubt, however, that this issue will have to be heard by specialists in Bach’s music, but I hesitate to recommend it to others.

Robert Matthew-Walker