Christoph Rousset performs JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Aparté
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
PERFORMER: Christophe Rousset (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: Aparté AP 120

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No need to wait eagerly for Book II of Christophe Rousset’s recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier: it was released a couple of years ago. It set down a marker not only as to Rousset’s approach to the music, but also to his preferred sound-world since both Books deploy the same instrument: a regally piquant 1628 Ruckers harpsichord whose decoration is as splendid as its home, the Palace of Versailles.

‘Intellectual and technical mastery’ are the qualities Rousset believes to be paramount in the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and he possesses both in spades. His is a grounded, incontestably considered reading, exuding a quiet, unflappable authority reminiscent of Gustav Leonhardt. Tempos are often surprisingly measured, and under other fingers could risk sounding safe, but they rarely do because they allow Rousset to focus on the music’s intrinsic design. He untangles Bach’s protean polyphony with the informed illumination of a seasoned tour guide steeped in his subject – always careful to establish an organic fit between prelude and fugue. Perhaps the A flat Prelude is a touch straight-laced, and its E flat cousin threatens to become becalmed in the crotchet-driven second section; but the gruffness of the E minor Prelude takes no hostages, and is discharged in the steely determination of its concluding Presto, while the defiant eccentricity of its fugue is confronted head on. Particularly compelling are the massive fugues in A minor and B minor, magisterial, and plotted with long-limbed structural sophistication.

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Paul Riley