A Well-Tempered Well-Tempered Clavier

Maurice L. Richter

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

The great cycle of forty-eight keyboard preludes and fugues that Bach created for didactic purposes in The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of the sublime monuments of Western art. As Angela Hewitt aptly observes in her thorough and informative notes accompanying her recording of the work, “It is an inexhaustible treasure trove of the greatest possible music, combining contrapuntal wizardry with his immense gift for expressing human emotion in all its forms. Bach amazes us by absolutely never running out of steam. In The Well-Tempered Clavier, we find a piece to suit every mood and every occasion.”

During the years 1717-1723, Bach was employed as Capellmeister and director of chamber music at the court in Cöthen. Since the court belonged to the Reformed Church, Bach was freed from the obligation to compose church cantatas and works for the organ. Here, then, he became a composer of secular chamber and house music, devoting his efforts to writing instrumental music whose purpose was to serve as perfect models and guides to both beginning and advanced students as well as music lovers. Bach was now the great mentor, dictating objective standards of technical craftsmanship. His extraordinary imagination and technical prowess, however, raised all these models far above the status of mere pedagogical devices into the realm of great art works.

By the time Bach composed the preludes and fugues constituting The Well-Tempered Clavier, he had thoroughly absorbed the two poles of late baroque music — the Italian and the French styles. The Italian style encompassed the harmonic resources of tonality, the concerto style in both instrumental and vocal music and the concerto and sonata styles of “absolute” music, while the French style was characterized by coloristic and programmatic trends in instrumental music, a measure of orchestral discipline, the use of the overture and dance suite and a quite florid use of melodic ornamentation. The Italian style was exemplified in the works of such composers as Corelli and Vivaldi, while the French style was molded by the orchestral innovations of Lully and the keyboard technique of Couperin. Rather than succumbing to these powerful Italian and French influences, Bach magnificently assimilated both of them with his profoundly German polyphonic tradition and created a unique fusion of national styles that is the most remarkable feature of his mature instrumental music.

In the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier, he brought all of his insight, learning and superior compositional technique to their highest fruition. The preludes and fugues of the Clavier are not only technically flawless, but are compositions of profound emotion as well. No two of them are alike, and taken together they encompass an unbelievably wide world of feeling.

In Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach composed twenty-four preludes and fugues in all of the keys now made possible by the system of tuning recently introduced by Andreas Werckmeister, the Halberstadt organist and music theoretician. For the first time, it was now possible to modulate and play in all major and minor keys. Bach systematically set down preludes and fugues in each major and minor key, beginning with C Major and ascending chromatically from C Major to C Minor, then C sharp Major (D flat Major), C sharp Minor and so on until he reached B Major and B Minor. Bach noted the date, 1722, on the title page, although the work was a compilation of preludes and fugues, some dating from earlier years.

Twenty-two years later, in 1744, Bach compiled another, similar set of twenty-four preludes and fugues, in what is now known as Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. All of these pieces together have come to be known as “The 48″ and have exerted a profound influence on the music that was to follow. “The 48″ are remarkable in providing an encyclopedic display of all the compositional styles known at the time for the keyboard. For example, in Book 1, Prelude No. 7 is patterned after the toccata, No. 10 is an aria, No. 11 an invention, No. 12 an allemande, No. 13 a two-part invention, No. 18 a three-part invention, while No. 19 is itself a fugue and No. 24 is patterned after the trio sonata. In Book 2, similarly, Prelude No. 5 is a sonata movement in galant style, No. 19 a pastorale, No. 21 a courante and No. 22 a trio sonata.

The fugues, too, exploit every possibility of the form, becoming not merely contrapuntal exercises, but “character pieces,” each embodying a single affection. Bach here brought the fugue form to a final culmination beyond which no further development was possible. Their incredible variety, their richness of invention, their extraordinary technical demands, along with their immediately expressive beauty and profundity of feeling have made them a pinnacle of artistic achievement.

Angela Hewitt is a Canadian pianist who now makes London her home. Ever since her triumph at the 1985 Toronto International Bach Piano Competition, her extraordinary musicianship and great virtuosity have endeared her to audiences around the world. With an amazingly varied repertory, she has performed entire recitals of the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Fauré and Roussel, along with two recital series devoted to the complete solo piano music of Ravel and concerts featuring the music of such contemporary composers as Messiaen.

Hewitt was born into a musical family, the daughter of the Cathedral organist in Ottawa. She began her study of the piano at the age of three and gave her first recital at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music when she was nine. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Ottawa at the age of eighteen and later, in 1995, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University. In two albums on the wonderfully enterprising Hyperion label, she has recorded Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Book 1 on CDA 67301/2 (2 CDs) and Book 2 on CDA 67303/4 (2 CDs).

Her playing immediately strikes one with its “rightness” — a combination of faultless technique, extraordinary control of touch and dynamics (with very restrained use of the sustaining pedal), great elegance and phrasing that is profoundly poised and intelligent. The forty-eight preludes and fugues encompass a whole world of feeling in their infinite variety, and Hewitt seems to capture all the many moods of the work as well as they have ever been captured on the piano. I have spent many hours playing and replaying these superb performances and find them endlessly fascinating. Hewitt brings an unalloyed freshness and vigor to her playing, a thorough musicianship, great clarity of texture and avoidance of the merely didactic — this is truly satisfying Bach.

Hewitt’s formidable technique is marvelous in the Prelude No. 2 in C Minor of Book 1. Her subtle articulation and depth of feeling are manifest in the Prelude No. 4 in C sharp Minor in the form of a loure, a French theatrical dance. The accompanying fugue, built on a subject consisting of just four notes is a massive piece, phrased flawlessly by Hewitt, who here builds up a powerful edifice. The variety of form in these pieces is enormous — Fugue No. 5 in D Major in French overture style is majestically interpreted by Hewitt. She brings a beautiful inwardness to Prelude No. 8 in E flat major, in the form of a slow sarabande. Her playing here is profoundly moving, with superb phrasing and perfect control of dynamics. Prelude No. 10 in E Minor has a bewitchingly haunting melody followed by a Presto that shows off Hewitt’s virtuosity, as does the accompanying two-voice fugue.

For Hyperion, she has recorded a collection of works of Messiaen on CDA 67054, but she is particularly notable as an exponent of Bach. She has recorded exemplary performances of the Bach Six French Suites and other works on two compact discs, CDA 67121/2, as well as the Fifteen Two-part Inventions, Fifteen Three-part Inventions, Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor and Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor on Hyperion CDA 66746. Bach’s Six Partitas are on two CDs, CDA 67191/2. Her newest, eagerly awaited recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations, CDA 67305, has just been released. Hewitt is today’s finest exponent of Bach on the piano.

WAGNER’S GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG

 

A TRUE TESTAMENT

Testament has gloriously reincarnated a never previously released recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung dating from 1951, with a stellar cast and conducted by one of the great Wagner conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch, Testament SBT 4175, (4 CDs). The performance was recorded live at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth on August 4, 1951 and is in really fine monaural sound, scarcely betraying its age, with the voices in beautiful balance with the orchestra.

1951 marked the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival after a closure of seven years, and this Götterdämmerung was its culmination, a triumph at the time. One Ring cycle was conducted with majestic dignity by the older, much revered Knappertsbusch, the second cycle by the young Herbert von Karajan, who favored faster tempi. Since Knappertsbusch was loath to become involved in long rehearsals, much of the musical preparation was left to Karajan.

The performance was recorded by the English Decca company (known as London in the U.S.) under John Culshaw as producer (also famously responsible for the later Sir Georg Solti- conducted recording of the Ring). A serious dispute between Decca and EMI (the fascinating details of which are given in the accompanying notes) over rights to the performance prevented its release for almost half a century. To everyone’s surprise, good will has prevailed, the necessary clearances obtained and a magnificent performance of Götterdämmerung is now happily available for the first time. It proves to be an inspired achievement, for Knappertsbusch’s legendary, authoritative conducting, the superb orchestral playing (the players were hand-picked from the best of Germany’s symphony orchestras and opera houses), the fine chorus chosen from all over Germany (many of them soloists in regional opera houses), carefully trained by the eminent Wilhelm Pitz of Aachen. Pitz’s work at Bayreuth in those first post-war years was much envied and never surpassed. But, most of all, it is a great performance because of the inspired singing of Astrid Varnay’s clear-voiced, youthful, womanly Brünnhilde, Bernd Aldenhoff’s powerful Siegfried, Ludwig Weber’s dark, magisterial bass, masterful as Hagen, sung with overwhelming intelligence, as fine a performance as this rôle has achieved. Hermann Uhde is a solid, articulate Gunther, and Martha Mödl strongly projects Gutrune’s emotions. Elisabeth Höngen is an intense Waltraute in a performance not easily bettered. The Norns and Rhinemaidens, all too often cast with voices of second rank spoiled by shrillness, are excellent here, with the luxury casting of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Woglinde, marvelously leading the Rhinemaidens and Mödl doubling as the Third Norn.

From the opening of the Prologue, Knappertsbusch’s legendary command is thrilling, the opening scene of the Three Norns prophesying with enormous power the tragedy to follow. The ensuing orchestral interlude is characteristic of Knappertsbusch’s ability to shape and mold the long lines of the drama. He subtly increases the tempo to reflect the transformation from the mythic mood of the Norns to the passionate music of Brünnhilde and Siegfried. Varnay’s ringing Brünnhilde is electrifying and Knappertsbusch’s energy sweeps the drama along. In the second scene of Act 1, he magically slows down when Hagen recognizes the Tarnhelm on Siegfried’s belt and discloses its magic power to him. Weber’s black bass is chillingly effective as he keeps watch at the end of this second scene, anticipating his possession of the ring. Varnay is intensely powerful in her denunciation of Siegfried, Aldenhoff’s bright voice impressive in both his responses here and in his Act 3 Narration.

There are very minor imperfections, as there almost always are in a live recording — occasional stage noises, a too distant miking of the Rhinemaidens at the very beginning of their appearance at the opening of Act 3 (though this rapidly improves). Aldenhoff is vividly dramatic in his peroration to Brünnhilde immediately before his death, Knappertsbusch and his expert orchestra providing outstanding support here, the strings warm and rich, the brass ringing and full as they are in the ensuing Funeral Music. Varnay at the close delivers a magnificently powerful and at the same time warm, womanly Immolation that is overwhelming in its focus and passion — this is a great Brünnhilde, indeed!

This is, in fact, a superb Götterdämmerung and a fine contribution to the legacy of great Wagner singing and conducting on record.