Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Book 1

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Roméo Records
WORKS: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Book 1
PERFORMER: Craig Sheppard (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 7258-9

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Craig Sheppard’s contributions to the host of available versions of the ‘48’ are a very distinctive tone and touch and, evident from enthusiastic applause, live performances. A year separates the recordings of the two books and, though they share many characteristics, they are markedly different. 

Common to both is Sheppard’s highly analytical approach to Bach’s counterpoint. Where the Preludes are based simply on shifting chord-sequences, he produces some lovely tone. The universally familiar opening Prelude has only a gentle dynamic rise and fall in a hypnotically regular tempo, not even a final rallentando, and the C sharp Prelude of Book 2 floats weightlessly before its light, pert allegro ending. The two-part Invention Preludes, too, are crisp and exhilarating, C minor and D minor of Book 2 for instance. But when Bach engages fully in contrapuntal wizardry, Sheppard seems to feel the need to highlight every device. In doing so, he uses the piano’s dynamic capabilities to the full, each entry louder than the last and, often, without relaxing the tone so that an inexorable crescendo builds up from beginning to end. The D sharp minor fugue of Book 1 is a case in point as entries close up in ‘stretto’ and expand in ‘augmentation’ to a hectic ending. 

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Sheppard’s emphatic, muscular approach is more evident in the earlier recording – Book 1. While at best, finger technique is exemplary, clarifying every momentary detail of the E major fugue, elsewhere, (C sharp, E flat), as counterpoint piles upon counterpoint, his tone is quite violently percussive. By 2008, either cool reflection or a Damascene conversion produced more lyricism and charm – Book 2’s F minor Prelude is captivating – though the D major fugue, every quaver emphasised, remains a stolid affair. The piano is distinctly more distant in the second recording too, avoiding some of the steely tone of Book 1. George Pratt