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Scott Noriega
Fanfare, November 2010

Hearing music without being able to see the performer is a 20th-century phenomenon that has become increasingly more the norm since the time of the first recordings. The Well-Tempered Clavier is often looked upon as a cerebral or spiritual journey from beginning to end, one that is perhaps best experienced with one’s eyes closed in the confines of home, making it a more personal “event.” This makes the director’s task a great deal harder when trying to match some sort of visual image with the aural experience, bringing back the full relationship between the performer, the music, and the audience. In this recording, the entire cycle of 48 preludes and fugues is divided among four pianists: Andrei Gavrilov (1–12), Joanna MacGregor (13–24), Nikolai Demidenko (25–36), and Angela Hewitt (37–48). Originally released for the Bach anniversary year in 2000, the recording was also shot in four different locations, respectively, the New Art Gallery in Walsall, the Palau Güell in Barcelona, the Palazzo Labia in Venice, and the Wartburg in Eisenach. As the sites used within the various locations constantly change, the directors (Karen Whiteside for the Book 1, and Peter Mumford for Book 2) seem to hope to not only film a concert, but to visually capture the musical character of each prelude and fugue as well. This is done not only by varying the setting, but also by shifting camera angles and the attire worn by the performers—sometimes even, and to rather corny effect, adding spirit-like images that dance around the instrument as the pianist is performing. More often than not, the best moments occur when the stunning rooms in the various locations can be seen in their full grandeur, or when the viewer gets the opportunity to study the dancing hands on the keyboard. Both directors also favor the use of various types of lighting, from the extreme white daylight used in the first C-Major pair to the dark candle-lit chamber of the second F♯-Minor pair. If this were just a film of mood-scenes, then this release would surely get high marks, but it is, most importantly, about the music.

Each pianist has come to Bach in his or her own way, and as they all have unique personalities, each prelude and fugue tends to sound like the person performing them. As with any complete Well-Tempered Clavier, this usually makes for a mixed bag, though here the positives far outweigh the negatives. Though I would normally describe Andrei Gavrilov as an aggressive player, here he tends to hold back a bit. The C-Major Prelude and Fugue both sound ethereal in the slow, contemplative, almost deliberate manner in which he plays them, while the C♯-Major pair is both light and airy. Joanna MacGregor was perhaps the real revelation on this recording, though perhaps not to those who know her previous recordings of the French Suites and The Art of Fugue. She has a rather sensuous sound, though not one that obscures the lines, but rather one that gives a radiant shimmer to the overall sound quality. This is not to say that she is overly reverential; she can clearly have fun, as can be witnessed in her bouncy, easygoing approach to the G-Major set, or the rather emotionally stark way with the Prelude and Fugue in B♭-Minor, a manner that I found particularly ideal for the piece. Nikolai Demidenko was not originally a name I expected to find on a recording of this kind, but I’m happy that I did. He tends to be slightly more fleet-fingered and assertive in his approach; for much of his contribution, this works well. His D-Major pieces are particularly well contrasted in manner. The prelude maintains a lively tempo throughout (finally!), while the fugue is rather more leisurely paced, with a real sense of arrival by its conclusion. He shows a slightly more muted and laid-back side to himself with the F-Major pair. Angela Hewitt is no stranger to the world of Bach, as she has recorded his entire keyboard oeuvre for Hyperion. She has a serious demeanor, though that’s not to say that she can’t lighten the mood when needed. Her F♯-Minor Prelude and Fugue are at once romantic and brooding, firm and yet flexible, yet, her way with the great B♭-Major set is much more relaxed and free, yet with a fine momentum toward the final tranquil conclusion. There are, of course, certain pieces that I prefer in other performances, but overall this is an intriguing project, one that is in the least entertaining, at its best enlightening. Since Hewitt is the only one of these four who has recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety (twice now for Hyperion), if one is interested in hearing these other artists in this repertoire, then this is your only choice. (Here’s my endorsement for a complete WTC by Joanna MacGregor.) If one is not interested in the visuals, keeping one’s eyes closed here would also certainly do the trick, and for music-making of this caliber, it would be worth the effort.

Kirk McElhearn
MusicWeb International, September 2010

Four pianists are featured, each performing a half a book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, or 12 preludes and fugues. This ringing of the changes is the first element that makes the set unique. While their interpretations are not that diverse, they do bring slightly different styles to the music. Some listeners might prefer a single performer for the work but this approach injects variety to make things more visually engaging. Not only are there four pianists but each performs in a different location.

We begin with Andrei Gavrilov, performing at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, England. In this very modernistic location, we quickly see the approach taken by the directors. Each pair of pieces—one prelude and fugue—is performed in a different part of the building, each with its own distinctive lighting. There are even changes of clothing and hair-styles. This sets the tone for all four parts of the set: each of the performers changes location, lighting and clothes for each pair of pieces. In addition, the camera-work is varied from one set of pieces to the next. Some are tight shots, others slow boom shots, and others distant shots from odd angles.

The second performer is Joanna McGregor playing in the Palau Güell in Barcelona. This older, more traditional building is darker and has, at different times, wooden beams, stone arches and marble columns. It’s exactly the opposite of the angular, minimalist New Art Gallery and exudes age.

Nikolai Demidenko opens book 2 in the Palazzo Labia in Venice. This baroque palace is quintessential Venice: with wall tapestries, marble floors, chandeliers and frescos, this building is attractive and is well used in this film. Some shots show the building from the outside, then peer in to watch Demidenko playing through a window. Others show the water of the canal lapping at the feet of the palazzo. Prelude & Fugue no. 10 is interspersed with shots of someone assembling a piano...Closing book 2 is Angela Hewitt, playing at the Wartburg in Eisenach. This classical German castle stands high on a precipice overlooking the town of Eisenach, where Bach was born, and where he lived until age ten. Shots in this section include some by candlelight in small rooms, others in sunlight in a large hall, and others in sombre settings.

The sound throughout this set is very good, but is somewhat inconsistent, which, given the multiple locations, is natural. It’s worth noting that Demidenko’s Fazioli piano has a harsh sound, unlike the Steinways that the other three performers play. It seems to privilege the treble and diminish the lower tones.

If I had seen a description of this set—with different locations, clothes and lighting for each prelude and fugue pair—the idea would probably have made me hesitate. But after watching it, I have to admit that it’s a unique way to present this music. Unlike, say, a performance of some Beethoven sonatas, which are longer works, the fragmentary nature of the Well-Tempered Clavier lends itself to this sort of approach. While the concept is odd, I found that I got used to it very quickly, and enjoyed it.

...As for the actual performances, this is not the place to judge the merits of these excellent pianists...They all play this music very well, and I have no gripes about style or interpretation...This is a fine initiative that presents in a new light extraordinary music that many people may not be very familiar with. If you’re a fan of Bach, there’s a good chance that you’ll appreciate this approach and the unique way the music is presented.

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2:01:15 AM, 3 August 2015
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