JS Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

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WORKS: The Well-Tempered Clavier
PERFORMER: John Butt (harpsichord)


John Butt’s credentials as a director and performer of early music are not in doubt and, as we might expect, his account of Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues is illuminating and thought provoking. He plays on a copy of a harpsichord by Michael Mietke (d.1719) – who provided at least one harpsichord for Bach – and he has chosen his editions carefully (by Richard Jones for Book I, and Yo Tomita for Book II) so we get authoritative sounds and texts. Also, his perspectives on pacing and relative speeds between the preludes and their attendant fugues are carefully considered and executed.

He is particularly good in the fugues – the long A minor piece from Book I is wonderfully controlled (the long pedal point at the end suggests it may originally have been for organ), and the Book I G major comes with some amazing flourishes.

The preludes also hold their delights – the interlacing lines in the A flat from Book II are excellently lucid, for instance – but in general are more problematic, not just for John Butt, but for everyone. The brilliant G major prelude from Book I has speed and flair, though not quite the deft lightness of Robert Levin’s harpsichord version on the Hänssler label. Others that suggest slower or more delicate natures perhaps suffer a little, particularly those that might have French connections – for example, from Book II, the intricately ornamented C sharp minor prelude, and the F major prelude, which seems to suggest an affinity with the tradition of ‘unmeasured’ preludes.


Anthony Pryer