Bach: Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book 1

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Mirare
WORKS: Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book 1
PERFORMER: Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: MIR 9930
By using the word ‘clavier’, Bach deliberately avoided allocating Book 1 of the ‘48’ to a specific instrument. The term encompassed organ, harpsichord, clavichord and, later, fortepiano. We can be fairly sure that Bach had a partly didactic purpose in mind, and would have wished to make his music available to as wide a diversity of keyboard practitioners as possible.

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Pierre Hantaï has chosen a very fine-sounding harpsichord by Jürgen Ammer, after an instrument built in Bach’s home territory of Thüringia in 1720, the very year that he completed his fair copy of Book 1. Readers who have heard this artist’s outstanding recording of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (reviewed last December) will already know of the instrument’s rewarding character. Hantaï’s approach to this music is stimulating and, in the main, well-judged. Few harpsichordists are quite so compelling in declaiming Bach’s musical argument with such clarity and conversational eloquence. Only very occasionally did the dialogue seem rushed and lacking in effective punctuation. The D minor Prelude is a case in point, where Gustav Leonhardt (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), Kenneth Gilbert (DG Archiv) and Davitt Moroney (Harmonia Mundi) are more communicative; and I found the rhythm of the D major Prelude a shade too relentless. But, for the most part Hantaï’s imaginative playing and accomplished technique are compelling. Perhaps more than any of the rival harpsichordists, he seems to possess an intuition which leads him and us to the poetic heart of this music. Leonhardt can be more learned, Ton Koopman (Warner) more showy, but for me the contest for a benchmark lies between Gilbert, Moroney and Hantaï. I shall go for the last-mentioned, partly for the lovely sound of the instrument itself, but partly for the sheer enjoyment engendered by his unencumbered musicianship. Nicholas Anderson