The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

J. S. Bach

Till Fellner

album cover

The Old Testament of Keyboard Music, Reborn

Classical music lovers consider this set of forty-eight preludes and fugues as the "Old Testament" of piano literature, and Beethoven's Piano Sonatas as the New. Just as the biblical document marks the beginning of a civilization, Bach began work on these during the codification of equal temperament, which standardized intervals between pitches to make a uniform scale. This was one of those upgrades that had to happen: It enabled music written in one key to be transposed to another, while retaining the same basic harmonic relationships.

Bach wrote the two books of Well-Tempered Clavier over two decades, from 1722 to 1744, as material for his students to play. Both books encompass polar-opposite characteristics of his work: The preludes, which have no set form, situate gregarious themes over interesting harmonic progressions. If they're the "art," the fugues represent the "craft": They're exercises in counterpoint in which two distinct musical "cells," or ideas, go running off in different directions and then reflect back on each other in parroted echoes and staggered rejoinders. Fugues have fixed rules, and Bach both upholds and bends them as he goes, exhausting possibilities with characteristic German thoroughness.

Bach understood that different keys projected different tones and colors, and he wrote to exploit those. His C Major Prelude, for example, is a totally open book, with a recurring figure that occasionally dips, via chromatic lines, into the relative minor. Later, working in "stormier" keys like E-flat or D-flat, his fugue subjects become more reflective, at times almost lyrical. That one set of pieces designed for utilitarian purposes could accommodate so many majestic, musically substantial ideas is a testament to the peerless Bach.

Pianist Till Fellner, who was born in Vienna in 1972 and studied with concert pianist Alfred Brendel, uses featherweight touches to bring this incredibly rich, detailed music to life. There's a great openness to his approach, and a sense that each note is getting special attention—the muted passage in the C-Sharp Minor fugue is extreme in this regard, a slight, yet stunning recasting of Bach's gesture that gives the music a modern timbre. Fellner gets help from the ambience of the recording: Like many ECM discs, it has a generous amount of sonic "warmth." Recommended for those who are seeking to broaden their classical music horizons, this contemplative reading of a masterwork has the power to inspire.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2004, ECM
Key Tracks: C-Sharp Minor; E Major; G Minor.
Another Interpretation: The Glenn Gould Edition
Catalog Choice: Violin Concertos, Andrew Manze, Academy of Ancient Music (Rachel Podger, cond.)
Next Stop: Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Opp. 109, 110, 111, Mitsuko Uchida
After That: Glenn Gould: The Art of the Fugue
Book Page: 35

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#1 from Annalisa - 04/02/2010 9:31

May I suggest Edward Aldwell’s interpretations of these timeless compositions?
No doubts Fellner is a good musician but I’m quite sure any real Bach’s listener would never agree with this particular pick.
No one ever played the Well Tempered Clavier so wonderfully and definitely the way the master himself would have want it to sound.

#2 from Elizabeth - 05/13/2010 4:57

Listening to all of the garbage on the radio today really makes you appreciate the timeless classics from Bach and the other great composers. I mean, does justin bieber write his own songs, or does someone else actually write that trash for him? Either way, thanks for the reminder that there is still some good music out there!

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