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Paul Shoemaker
MusicWeb International, March 2007

At the outset it is necessary to discuss several points. First, please note that this work is not entitled the “equal tempered keyboard”, but the “well tempered keyboard.” Bach did not write this work to prove the necessity of equal temperament for keyboard instruments, as some books insist, but just the opposite: at a time when equal temperament was being promoted, he produced this work to show it was NOT necessary, that one could write pleasingly well in all keys using an unequal temperament, such as Werckmeister temperament. Some books actually say Bach invented equal temperament, which is preposterous. Equal temperament had been around for centuries; all fretted stringed instruments — guitars, lutes, viols — have always been equal tempered, while skilled performers devised various clever means (e.g., sliding bridges, rolling frets) of mitigating the resulting unpleasantness. Once you get used to hearing temperaments, you perceive that equal temperament produces a monotonous, banally sour sound; the reason to use unequal temperament is to give a sweeter sound to “near” keys and a more astringent sound to “far” keys intensifying the drama of the music.

What eventually made equal temperament commonplace was not any piece of music, but the nature of modern pianofortes. Since every note on a piano is slightly out of tune with itself - read any good book on piano tuning - the slight tuning errors of equal temperament become unnoticeable. Violinists have to play slightly out of tune to accommodate equal temperament when they play with a piano accompaniment. When a professional violinist friend first began to play accompanied by my mean tone tempered harpsichord he was startled; at first he couldn’t play at all, then discovered it was easier. All those years he’d thought the problem was in his ear, but instead it was the equal temperament of the piano.

The work is also not entitled the “Well Tempered Clavichord”. At the time of composition of the first book, Bach would have intended and expected the choice of instrument to be up to the performer, and clavichord, harpsichord, lute, pianoforte or organ would all have been suitable. He revised some of the pieces between the time of their original composition and their inclusion in the first volume of this anthology because the likelihood changed of one instrument being employed over another. Some critics notwithstanding, Bach did not struggle, like Beethoven, composing various imperfect versions of a work, hoping eventually to hit on just the right combination of notes for the perfect effect. Bach never wrote imperfect music. If Bach revised a work it was because expected performance conditions changed, such as choice of instrument.

By the time of the second book, it was obvious to anyone with a grain of sense, and Bach is generally credited with at least that, that the pianoforte would soon be the most popular, the preferred keyboard instrument. Hence, book two can with little trepidation be proclaimed to be a work at least mostly for pianoforte. The enormous success of both books of the work in pianoforte performance over nearly two hundred years bears out this observation, that the pianoforte cannot in any sense be considered unsuited for, or unintended for, this music. The work was used as prime instruction material for all great players of the pianoforte from C.P.E. Bach, to Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy — right up to Sviatoslav Richter. This work guided the design and development of the pianoforte right down to the present day. Yes, I’m a reformed harpsichord snob; I love the harpsichord as one forever loves one’s first love, but eventually truth wins out.

That said, the work also sounds wonderful on the harpsichord, and indeed the work is equally responsible for the revival of the harpsichord as it was for the development of the pianoforte. Landowska naturally began studying keyboard as a pianist and made her debut as such in childhood. Her turn to the harpsichord did not occur until her studies into early music, encouraged by her husband, Herbert Yew. Yew was killed in an accident in 1919 and Wanda did not remarry, eventually hiring her student Denise Restout as personal assistant, leading to all kinds of absurd and pointless speculations by critics and biographers.

Landowska had made many recordings in her life, but the decision to record the entire WTK was a landmark effort for the time. The recordings proceeded in sessions of varying length — most often recording only one prelude and fugue, sometimes two — and spanned five years. The first sessions were held at an RCA recording studio in New York City, but apparently this proved inconvenient, so the remainder of the sessions were held in Ms. Landowska’s country house in Lakeville, Connecticut. There was reportedly some difficulty getting the people and equipment set up and used to this location. During the first sessions there, on the 27 and 28 of May 1950, four preludes and fugues were put “in the can”; they were all generally disappointing in both sound and performance quality, but were not re-done. After that, things settled down more agreeably and the next sessions produced excellent and, on occasion, brilliant results.

Landowska’s performance of the first prelude and fugue from set I is the lowest point in the set interpretatively, due to her aberrant reading of the rhythm in the first fugue, something she alone clung to, unsupported by other scholars. Also, her performance of the prelude - like most others as well, unfortunately - does not take into account the echo structure of the work and, without dynamic contrasts, the work merely sounds like an arpeggio exercise played slowly. But many of her performances of the later preludes and fugues remain landmarks in the history of recorded keyboard music. Her use of the varied sonorities of her multi-rank Pleyel harpsichord is conservative, entirely within what was then and what would later be considered good practice. My quarrel is that some of these sonorities are unpleasantly twangy and nasal, and the dated monophonic sound quality is thick and untransparent. But one gets used to that, even as one prefers the crisper, sweeter, German harpsichord sound achieved on their instruments by Ruzickova and Walcha.

The instrument (and Prelude and Fugue no. 1) aside, Landowska was a scholar and a performing artist of the first rank and hers is an imperishable monument in the recording history of this vital and entertaining work. If we play the works differently ourselves or enjoy differing recordings, we will always come back to listen to this recording with much pleasure.

One writer says Landowska was the first person to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1933, but that is not correct; Sir Donald Francis Tovey was playing them in England and in Germany, on harpsichord and pianoforte, privately and in concert, years before that.

Although João Carlos Martins has recently earned a reputation for being a bad boy of Bach piano performance through his eccentricities and theatrics, these recordings of theWTK, among his very first, are excellent and thoroughly disciplined. The recorded sound is superlative, the playing enthusiastic, clear and balanced. In his hands the exquisite lyrical bell-like tone of his instrument’s mid-range reminds one of the early Broadwood pianos. This is the performance we would like to have had from Glenn Gould — but didn’t. Glenn Gould recorded a wilfully obtuse version that has set even his partisans to quarrelling, and left a bit of a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Of course, like everything he did, it’s very much worth hearing, but you wouldn’t want to own it as your only recorded version. Of the harpsichord versions both Ruzickova (I) and Walcha used large German harpsichords with varied tonal quality, tastefully applied. As to be expected, Ruzickova is a little more sprightly an

Gramophone, March 2007

Mark Obert-Thoro's transfers are fully up to the mark (forgive the pun), just as they are for Book 2 of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier played by Wanda Landowska, recorded by Victor at her horne between 1951 and 1954, grand, flamboyant performances that in this edition sound warmer, more consistent (pitch-wise) and more palatable than ever before. Naxos usefully completes the package with an earlier recording of the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV998.

Gramophone, March 2007

Mark Obert-Thoro's transfers are fully up to the mark (forgive the pun), just as they are for Book 2 of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier played by Wanda Landowska, recorded by Victor at her horne between 1951 and 1954, grand, flamboyant performances that in this edition sound warmer, more consistent (pitch-wise) and more palatable than ever before. Naxos usefully completes the package with an earlier recording of the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV998.

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12:33:32 PM, 11 February 2016
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