Bach: Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book 1

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: ASV Gaudeamus
WORKS: Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book 1
PERFORMER: Gary Cooper (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: CD GAX 251
Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is the common property of all keyboard instruments. Bach never specified a particular type and, though the piano, even in the earliest stages of its development, was unknown when he prepared his fair copy of Book 1 (c1722), pianists have subsequently taken these wonderful pieces to heart. Well-tempered, broadly speaking, meant appropriately tuned, thereby begging all sorts of questions where harpsichord or clavichord tuning was concerned. Pianists don’t need to be concerned since modern pianos are almost invariably tuned to equal temperament, but it is very likely that Bach envisaged an equallish temperament for the harpsichord. That is what Gary Cooper gives us in his recording of Book 1 of the ‘48’. He is a player who understands the diverse character of this music, its tensions, its poetry and its powers of evocation. Yet, though he seldom fails to illuminate Bach’s contrapuntal textures, didactic qualities are more strongly represented than the lyrically expressive ones. To restore that balance I incline more readily towards Davitt Moroney (Harmonia Mundi) and Kenneth Gilbert (DG Archiv).

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By contrast with Cooper, Hans Georg Schäfer plays the first book of the ‘48’ on a modern piano but, instead of the standard tuning of today, prefers one perfected by Bach’s contemporary, Johann Georg Neidhardt. Schäfer possesses a winning expressive delicacy and a linear clarity which further benefits from his discreet use of the sustaining pedal. His tempi are generally brisker than Cooper’s but I sometimes detected a rhythmic unevenness which I found unsettling. The C sharp major Fugue is a case in point. The tuning is an interesting experiment and one that is by no means displeasing, but my preferential choices lie between Angela Hewitt (Hyperion) and the satisfying performances recorded by Edwin Fischer in the Thirties (EMI). Nicholas Anderson