Das wohltemperierte Klavier
Yes, I know, Bach once more.
But to my defense, this is the first time I’ve written about this particular work, the famous Well-Tempered Clavier BWV 846-893.
Prelude no. 1 in C-major is probably known even to many non-classical listeners, as it forms the basis of Gounod’s Ave Maria, and it is accessible enough for most piano students to attack it at some point during their classes (including me).
Obviously, there is much more to this cycle of works that takes you through every single key step by step. It consists of two “books” or parts of preludes and fugues covering all keys of our Western scale
Side note: In case you didn’t know, the term “well-temperament” refers to the tuning of the keyboard that was at that time recently invented. Before the well-tempered tuning, any given tuning used at the time worked well for some keys but didn’t really work for others. To simplify, the well-tempered scale by Andreas Werkmeister was the first where you could easily switch between keys without any of the keys sounding out of tune.
I already had a couple of nice recordings of this work, from old-fashioned but great Sviatoslav Richter to Andras Schiff (obviously), to both recordings of Angela Hewitt.
However, I never had a recording on harpsichord that really convinced me. Earlier I used to like Keith Jarrett’s recording on ECM. However, I’ve outgrown this recoding a bit. Both Egarr and Levin are very good, but still I wasn’t 100% satisfied.
Céline Frisch’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1
However, the February 2016 issue of Classica pointed me towards her Well-Tempered Clavier recording, so I went to Qobuz and gave it a listen. They awarded this album a “Choc“, their way of saying 5 stars, and called this “une interprétation magistrale“, probably best translated with “authoritative recording”. (It also received the highest rating from Diapason, the Diapason d’or).
And I was impressed, this version is so spot-on, so precise, but never technical, never dull. Bach on a harpsichord can easily get boring or annoying, when it is played too much like robot, or lacking any other kind of differentiation, as obviously on a harpsichord you cannot modulate your touch like you can do on a modern piano.
None of this here, you will be drawn into the music from the first second, and will want to listen to the entire thing. Not an easy achievement, given that this was composed to use Bach’s own words (translation thanks to Wikipedia) “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”, i.e. essentially a piece to study your skills, not really for public performance and for somebody else to listen to it.
Frisch plays a copy of a Silbermann harpsichord. This instrument at the beginning takes some getting used to, it being a bit bright and slim. However, you get into it really quickly, also thanks to Alpha’s usual good recording technique, and after a while you really appreciate the transparency that let’s you hear through even more complicated fugues.
My rating: 5 stars
P.S. And you can be sure her Goldberg’s are next on my playlist.