I recently decided that I wanted to get to know Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das wohltemperierte Clavier). I have a recording, a two-box set of LPs given to me fifteen years or so ago by a friend who didn't want them. (He's mainly a jazz fan, and I got the impression that he had bought some classical recordings mainly for educational purposes, now either fulfilled or abandoned.) The pianist is Sviatoslav Richter, and the recordings were originally issued by the Russian (Soviet at the time) recording company (if that's the word) Melodiya, and in this country by the Musical Heritage Society in the 1980s.
I was a little hesitant, and not sure how far I would get in the series. When I first encountered the title many years ago, I thought it must be semi-humorous: the composer taming the savage keyboard, or something along that line. In a college music history class (one of my half-dozen or so favorite courses in all of my schooling) I learned that it is very prosaically, clinically, descriptive. The explanation quickly gets beyond my very limited knowledge and discernment, but the general idea is that in order to get a keyboard instrument to sound in tune in all keys you have to tweak the tuning of each string just a bit away from the mathematically correct frequency. If you want to read all about it, try this.
To demonstrate the concept--and incidentally write a classic work--Bach composed a set of forty-eight preludes and fugues, a pair for each of the twenty-four keys (majors and minors). That was Book I. Nearly twenty years later he published Book II. So: ninety-six compositions.
I started, sensibly, with side 1 of disc 1 of box 1: the first four pairs, in C major, C minor, C# major, and C# minor. Something about the recording bothered me a little. I think it was mainly the quality of the sound, which though not terrible is somehow a little distant, and there seems to be some dynamic variation from one track to another, more than is accounted for by the character of each piece. So I decided to look for other recordings, and I found Glenn Gould's.
Whenever I talk about classical music, I start with the disclaimer that I don't have much of an ear for variations in interpretation. Often I'm pretty sure that I would not be able to distinguish one performance from another. But in this case.... Here, listen for yourself to the two performances of the first piece in the series, the Prelude in C Major from Book I. Even if you don't know the WTC, you'll probably recognize it. I think it's often performed alone.
You don't have to have a rarefied level of connoisseurship to hear the difference between those. I think I may actually have laughed aloud when I heard Gould's: it's almost mechanical-sounding, with that resolute thumping on the low notes that outline the harmony. With my folk and pop sense of how music works, I think of them as the bass player staking out the chord progression. But I can't help liking the performance. It makes the structure crystal clear, almost reducing the piece to structure. I certainly don't state that as a principle, but in this instance, maybe just because of the immediate contrast with Richter, it seemed delightful.
Someone says in a comment on that video that "Gould doesn't play Bach. He explains Bach." That strikes me as pretty accurate. That first prelude seems a deliberately provocative statement of his intention not to seek out or impart emotion to the music, but to show us how it works. After that statement he relaxes, still cool but not lecturing. And for me he brings a clarity to the music which in fact increases rather than limits the aesthetic-emotional effect.
That's especially true in the fugues. And it's the fugues that led me into this venture. With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. Yet I've heard people say that this or that fugue moved them to tears, and I'm intrigued by that, and wonder what I'm missing.
And I find that Gould's performance is opening up the fugues to me. I'm up to E Major now, and am enchanted by most of the preludes, and enjoying the fugues more than I have in the past, though they're still a bit of a struggle. It helps that most of them so far are fairly short.
It's a lot to absorb, and I don't expect to get through both books anytime soon, especially as I don't intend to give up all other music until this project is completed. But it's a lot of pleasure, too. I had a vague notion that The Well-Tempered Clavier is a somewhat academic, pedagogical work. Wrong. Already I think it's climbing up my ladder of favorite music and approaching Goldberg Variations territory, which is at the top. I'm listening to the Gould recordings on Pandora (Plus), and thinking that I may have to buy the CDs, which I'm supposed to have given up.
Here's an introduction to the fugue which I found helpful. It helped just to have it pointed out to me that fugues typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
If you know Gould's work and, um, habits, you'll be amused by this customer review at Amazon:
I absolutely love the music itself, but the quality of the discs leaves a little to be desired. Throughout different sections there seems to be some type of strange "other" sounds. Sometimes it sounds like there is background music. Other times, it sounds like the pianist is humming to himself. These are studio recordings and it sounds like someone is talking in the control room during the playing.
P.S. I'm puzzled by the fact that in #8, the prelude is described as being in Eb Minor, while the fugue is described as being in D# minor. It led me to discover the word "enharmonic" ('a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently'). But that doesn't explain why these two pieces are named that way.