Satirino records · Das Wohltemperierte Klavier
J. S. Bach, 1685-1750
The Well-Tempered Clavier - BWV 846-893
Kenneth Weiss harpsichord
Satirino records SR141 - 4 CDs - released on 24th March 2014
Extract from Kenneth Weiss's recital performance of Book 2 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier at the Cité de la musique in Paris on 16th March 2014. The complete concert can be viewed here:
Recorded at the Cité de la musique, Paris, in June and December 2013 on the Ruckers-Taskin harpsichord in the Musée de la musique collection
Sound engineer, producer, editing, mastering
Sorge 1744, Karoly Mostis
Instrument preparation and maintenance
le monde est petit
© Moritz Kerkmann, Arthur Forjonel, Jean-Marc Anglès
Jean-Claude Battault, La Cité de la musique, Jiri Heger, Supercloclo, Aline Pôté & Moritz Kerkmann
We would also like to thank the Théâtre de Caen, the Festival de Lanvellec et du Trégor & the Festival de Villevieille - Salinelles for their support and commitment to this project.
Classica, June 2014, Philippe Venturini
"A prelude and fugue a day can be said to hold life's tensions at bay," is Kenneth Weiss's medical prescription. Don't hesiste in consulting him. And regularly.
"...shines out as one of the most incandescent readings in the Well-Tempered Clavier discography... an extremely sensitive narrative. Kenneth Weiss's approach is clear from the very first, famous Prelude: that of modesty, true to the words of his presentation text, but also the clarity of polyphony (no overloaded registrations), and both the fluidity of his phrasing and the suppleness of his tempi. Thus he never hesitates to breath before the first note of a bar to mark a modulation or moment of intensity. At no moment mechanical (for example in the endless whirl of semi-quavers of the 2nd Prelude), often jauntily spontaneous (the regularity of the jumping quavers in the left hand in the 5th Prelude), at times boastful and Scarlatti-like (5th Prelude of Book II) but also capable of gravitas but without dragging his feet (Fugue n°8, Book II), Kenneth Weiss is at all times convincing in the positive existential effects of this work"
June 2014, Philippe Ramin
"Performers capable of mastering both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier are few are far between... Kenneth Weiss performs on the exquisit Ruckers-Taskin in the Paris Musée de la musique... and bases his sound palette on the instrument's deep resonance and sparkling colours... Few harpsichordists have been able to explore its captivating timbre to this extent. In the first book we are struck by the clarity of line, the perfectly judged tempi that favour expressivity, even in the introductory Toccatas... the fugues unfold naturally, both readable and wonderfully song-like. The characterisation is clearly defined, the touch always mellow and eloquently refined.
"This projection of naturalness makes the more tricky preludes (E flat minor, F minor) eminently moving, and gives the archaistic fugues a peaceful beauty... Weiss prefers exploiting the resonance of the instrument by paying particular attention to the balance between the different tessituras. Thus the Prelude in C sharp major unrolls its lute-like figures in a dreamy atmosphere, at the same time as being well anchored to the bass line, and the bouncy theme of the D major Fugue exploits the duration of the notes rather than their attack, making the counterpoint supple and expressive."
July - August 2014, Eduardo Torrico
"El norteamericano Kenneth Weiss es uno de los músicos más serios, rigurosos, documentados y capacitados con los que he tenido la fortuna de toparme. Sus lecturas bachianas (exceptionales sus dos registros de las Variaciones Goldberg) y scarlattianas son una ineludible referencia. Con la grabación de los dos libros del Clave bien temperado, usando un Ruckers-Taskin original perteneciente al Musée dela musique de París, Weiss no sólo rinde homenaje a Bach, sino que logra erigir un auténtico monumento musical."
[“The American Kenneth Weiss is one of the most serious, rigorous, documented and well-trained musicians I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. His readings of Bach (his two Goldberg Variations recordings are exceptional) and Scarlatti are essential benchmark recordings. With this recording of both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier, played on an historic Ruckers-Taskin Harpsichord belonging to the Musée de la musique in Paris, Weiss not only pays tribute to Bach; he has succeeded in forging a veritable musical monument.”]
Note by Kenneth Weiss
Playing the ‘48’ is an all-encompassing endeavour where touch, sight, hearing, analytical thought, rhythm and a healthy dose of mysticism unite. I know of no other musical composition where body and mind interact to create such a sense of spiritual truth.
I am humbled before this unique collection. Each finger must be an agile acrobat, a bel canto singer, a team player; the mind must keep constant watch that the ears and heart are open. As the proverbial apple a day keeps the doctor away, a prelude and fugue a day can be said to hold life's tensions at bay.
Many find Book two more expansive than Book one. I like to imagine that Bach's second trip around the world was planned well in advance, that he knew it would be his last voyage in these realms and he wanted to revisit and expand upon all he had done before.
As a lone traveler to the far off lands of D sharp minor or F sharp major or G sharp or B flat minor I myself knew not a soul upon arrival and not speaking a word of the native tongue I had to forge my own way and hunt and gather as I could. Bach imagined and created these landscapes and I was happy to spend years following his map of unknown lands. On my second voyage in Book two in visiting the same lands of 24 keys, I recognized the landscapes and the dialects from my first visit and I too could continue and enrich my discoveries.
Bach's Well Tempered Clavier is a gift to humanity. It can teach and nourish us and inspire and heal us. Through generations, through births, losses, loves and deaths it stays there, intact, ready for all to attempt to grasp and cherish it.
Reified to the position of a masterwork—if not the masterwork—in the Western Musical canon, the origins of the ‘48’ are important to remember. Certainly Bach had no intention that they should be heard in a complete sequence, some kind of musical marathon which should be performed and witnessed with reverence and wonder. Nor was there any intention of hearing them in any ‘right’ order. On the other hand, there are several clear aspects of Bach’s intentions, counterbalanced by a cloud of uncertainties and subsequent misguided mythologies.
There is a brief title page to the 1722 copy of the ‘Well-Tempered Keyboard’ at which time there was no concept of a sequel: the second book was to be composed in the decade from 1735, the year he published Part II of the Clavierübung. The prefatory page to the first book, though brief, encapsulates the various aims of the collection, although neither as succinctly stated as in the title of the Clavierübung (‘Keyboard practice’), nor as eloquently as the ‘To the reader’ of Domenico Scarlatti’s Essercizi. But it is clear from Bach’s title page that a similar aim was in his mind: ‘for the use and improvement of young musicians eager to learn’, he writes. But there was an additional purpose in what was to become the ‘48’: to write Preludes and Fugues ‘through all the tones and semitones, both through the major thirds Ut Re Mi and also the minor thirds Re Mi Fa.’
On both of these points some amplification is in order. The composer Ernst Ludwig Gerber (1746-1819), whose father Heinrich Nicolaus Gerber had been taught by Bach himself, wrote in his entry on Bach in his Lexicon der Tonkünstler of 1790, that an important part of the ‘training’ aspect was Bach’s employment of ‘fingering never used before him’. While commentators have focused their attention on the use of all the major and minor keys—until recently mostly erroneously—the tactile aspect has received little attention: even the first book of the ‘48’ feels distinctly different under the hands from the concerto-like motor-rhythms of, for example, the Italian Concerto or some of the Preludes of the English Suites, not to mention the Toccatas. Again they are different from the style brisé movements of the French Suites and the Allemandes from the Partitas, with their lute-like presentation of light counterpoints articulated between arpeggiated chords. The second book takes this difference a stage further.
In terms of technique, Bach was not alone in his new approach to fingering which centred on an increased use of the thumb as a pivot, a technique advocated by several writers on keyboard technique in the 1720s, among them Rameau in his important Méthode of 1724. Eleven of the Preludes from Book I from the aforementioned 1722 manuscript (now in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin), had already appeared in the Clavier-Büchlein he wrote for his son Wilhelm Friedemann. These contain some fingerings which give us insight into the exercises Bach developed to train the hands in this way.
As for the use of all the keys, the old view was tainted by a teleological approach: that ‘at last’ we had arrived at equal temperament, an advance no less monumental than the discovery of perspective in painting. In fact Bach was not alone in his fascination with a sequence of pieces based on every semitone: he must have been aware of Mattheson’s 1719 collection of figured-bass exercises published in all the keys in Hamburg where Bach was residing that very year. On his own title-page, Bach is really only employing the convention of German nomenclature when he stresses the two kinds of third in his brief title, though it is notable that he frames it within a mention of the old-fashioned hexachords, as if to flag up an advance in musical thought.
This aspect of the collection does, however, have particular repercussions with regard to later twentieth-century research on Bach’s temperaments which has unearthed a wealth of tuning methods (Werckmeister—with whom the phrase ‘Well-tempered’ was particularly associated—Silbermann and Vallotti, among others) in which major and minor thirds are all of slightly different widths, imbuing each key with a slightly different colour. To put it in laymans’ terms, in our modern Equal Temperament, where all intervals have the same width in every key, no keys are very bad, but none are very good, since there are no pure intervals. In the temperaments evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, each key has a different quality: the sharp keys often bright, vibrant and jangly; the keys around C major, resonant and pure; and the flat keys sometimes doleful, with narrow minor thirds. The differing widths of the thirds are paramount in this process as each one ‘beats’ at a different speed. The major third has no beat when acoustically pure, but as it is altered in width—which is what the word ‘tempered’ means—it beats faster and faster until it becomes unacceptable to the ear, and unrecognisable as a third. The equally-tempered major thirds of modern-day ‘equal temperament’ are wide, and vibrate relatively quickly, but the ear can take even more width. The fifths are also tempered in this way, though usually in their case narrowed.
The present recording uses the 1744 temperament found in a detailed treatise by G. A. Sorge (published in Hamburg): listeners may like to consider—with careful attention—the slightly different qualities of each neighbouring key for detailed enjoyment of the colouristic aspect of the pieces. We should remember the testament of the Polish polymath and composer Lorenz Mizler who claimed in 1754 that ‘In tuning harpsichords [Bach] knew how to temper so exactly and correctly that all the keys sounded handsome and agreeable’. It is now generally agreed that there was no single ‘Bach temperament’, and it is quite possible that he did not adhere to any of the prescribed methods.
Behind the interpretation of the pieces lies the question of the flux of styles. Bach was by no means alone in subscribing to the fashion for fusion: the ‘48’ could be said to be fusion music par excellence. Toccatas become dances, dances become arias, even Fugues can veer between the stile antico and the dance, and sometimes end in fantasia-like bravura. In the later Baroque, this fashion also deeply affected national styles: we think particularly of Bach’s identification of ‘French’ suites and ‘Italian’ concertos but in fact the ‘48’ are perhaps the most extreme melting-pot of the process of fusion into which the German Organ style and the archaic styles of Renaissance polyphony are also drawn in. On another level, it has long been recognised that both as example and accomplishment, the Fugues advance the contrapuntal procedures with a variety and use of modulation which have no precursors: models for future fugal composers—or perhaps improvisers.
There remains the question of where Bach wrote the pieces and under what circumstances. We have no reason to disbelieve Gerber when he claims that Bach, at the time of the compilation of the first book, did not compose at the keyboard. What he writes next has led to speculation that Bach wrote them while he was held as a detainee for a month in prison in Weimar in 1717: ‘He wrote his ‘48’ in a place where ennui, boredom, and the absence of any kind of musical instrument forced him to resort to this pastime’. The idea that they were composed together is of course disproved by the earlier appearance of some of the Preludes in W.F. Bach’s book (and there are some even earlier versions) but it remains possible that Bach did write some of the Preludes and Fugues of the first book in a single period of time, and more possibly some from the second book.
Why did he embark upon a second? This is a question posed by several Bach scholars. Many pertinent answers have been suggested, reminding us that Bach’s craft was not elevated above those of his contemporaries as it is today. After all, he was a jobbing musician in a climate where positions could be terminated without notice: competition was fierce, and appointments were not made entirely without prejudice. He was a difficult man, an unforgiving taskmaster and hard negotiator. And he had more and more children to educate and support. Did he also, perhaps, use the volume to assuage criticism from Johann Adolph Scheibe, among others, that he wrote in a heavy, outmoded style?
One of the noticeable innovations in Book II is in the number of Preludes written in binary form: pieces in two parts with repeats. Ten of these are found in this book as opposed to only one in the first. This was Bach ‘lightening up’ and responding to changes in fashion. The principle of binary structure which had been largely confined to dance movements had now also affected character pieces as well as Sonatas. In addition, the second book has more Preludes which are based on a succession of musical ideas—a characteristic development in musical form increasing towards the middle of the eighteenth century, not least in the Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Perhaps these features explain why some commentators have found Book II to be more expressive.
As for the Fugues in Book II, Mattheson was an active rival inviting Bach to comment on his fugues. Bach may have done this in music rather than words: in Book II, augmenting his legacy to ‘48’. The variety of types of Fugue—some distinctly within the stile antico heritage, others much lighter and closer to the Inventions—is no less than in Book I, but there is a noticeable increase in ingenuity, particularly in the ways in which the fugal material is funneled through various keys.
A question much debated by interpreters is whether there was any intended relationship, apart from the sharing of keys, between the Preludes and Fugues. Pianists have frequently based their interpretations on the assumption that there is, often playing Fugues to fit the mood of the way they play the Preludes, and perhaps vice versa, frequently imposing romanticised concepts on them, albeit sometimes very beautifully. What is clear is that for Bach, the Fugues were not academic exercises but—just as much as the Preludes—compositions aimed at developing the keyboard skill of communicating complex counterpoints through the fingers.
The various sources for Book II confirm a similar pattern. There are earlier versions of many of the pieces, thus it was in part a compilation rather than a new composition. The composer’s second wife Anna Magdalena is one of the copyists of the principal source for Book II, now in the British Library in London and known as the London Autograph. Enthusiasts can obtain a facsimile of this volume, as well as that of Book I, and Bach scholars have detailed the accretions in following copies, including alternative passages, different accidentals and added ornaments, particularly by W. F. Bach. Copying, in those days, was an important part of the learning process, and many of his pupils seem to have made a copy. Of particular interest is one made by his pupil Kirnberger which includes fingerings.
This recording, without in any way claiming any particular ‘authenticity’—whatever that means—approaches from the standpoint of a deep relationship with the harpsichord itself and with Bach’s entire keyboard oeuvre, and very much from an intimacy with the music of the preceding era, rather than with subsequent interpretations. Whether the ‘48’ was conceived for the harpsichord is a discussion which already has a lengthy history. Whatever one thinks about some Preludes being more suited to the Clavichord, they are all suited to harpsichord interpretation, though players may approach them from different standpoints. Bach, after all, was a master of transcription from one medium to another, not just from one instrument to another, nor only his arrangements of other composers’ music. Just because some of the Preludes are in an organ-like style, stemming from a passage over an organ-point, does not mean Bach meant them for the organ. On the other hand, though the particular expressivity of certain of the ‘rare-key’ Preludes—E flat and B flat minors, for example—may work well with the employment of such techniques as Bebung, the vibrato uniquely possible on that most intimate instrument, the clavichord, it doesn’t mean such pieces won’t readily adapt to the sonorities and subtle arpeggiation and dislocation which are the essence of harpsichord interpretation. Although nothing in the ‘48’ approaches the virtuosic use of the hands demanded by the Goldberg Variations, and however much they were conceived as an instruction manual, as a testament to the infinite variety of late-Baroque keyboard technique they form a monumental stepping-stone.
Richard Langham Smith
Harpsichord signed Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1646
Ravalement by Pascal Taskin, Paris, 1780
Collection of the Musée de la Musique, inventory N° E. 979.2.1
Present compass: F’ to f3, 61 notes.
Three sets of strings: 2 x 8’, 1 x 4’.
Four registers : 2 x 8’, 1 x 4’, and 8’ jeu de buffle.
Two keyboards, registration and coupling by knee levers.
Manual lute stop; Jack quills in feather and peau de buffle.
Pitch: a1 = 415 Hz.
Restored at the end of the 19th century by Louis Tomasini and in 1972 by Hubert Bédart.
Equipped with a reproduction of original mechanism (registers and jacks) made by the Von Nagel workshop in 1990.
This harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers was built in Antwerp in 1646. The construction of the case, or what rests of its internal structure after the various transformations it has undergone, confirms this. While one can be sure that it was originally an instrument with two keyboards, it is difficult to attribute the work to either Andreas père or to his son, second of that name. The original harpsichord was a "grand transpositeur français", a French style instrument with a transposing mechanism that gave a chromatic range from GG-c3. Between this and the current state, dating from 1780, we can distinguish several interventions to extend its range. Around 1720, a small revision was made to install a wider range of notes while keeping the width of the original case (803 mm), giving FF-c3. In 1756 it was enlarged once again, in the upper register. This was made possible by moving the cheek and changing the wrestplank, enlarging the case to 853 mm. This major revision, attributed to François Étienne Blanchet (c. 1695-1761), gives a range of FF-e3.
In 1780 Pascal Taskin rebuilt the instrument entirely. Born in 1723 in the province of Liège, in 1763 he joined the workshop of François Étienne Blanchet II (c. 1730-1766. After the death of his master he married his widow, Marie-Geneviève Gobin, and took over the workshop. He joined the guild of instrument makers as a "maître facteur" and in 1772 became "Garde des instruments de musique de la chambre du Roi".
Skilled in the delicate operations of instrument re-building, Taskin completely restructured the Andreas Ruckers harpsichord and added a top note to get the full five octaves FF-f3. He also added a fourth row of jacks to the existing three, this row with plectra in peau de buffle, in contrast to the other three quill-mounted rows. Finally, he installed a set of knee-operated levers that enabled registers to be changed while playing and the creation of expressive diminuendo and crescendo effects, to compete with the growing popularity of the pianoforte.
The sound is echoed by the decoration, which has also undergone transformations paralleling the interventions of different makers. The soundboard is painted in the usual style of Ruckers' famous Antwerp workshop, but Taskin, in the style of his period, introduced a Louis XVI stand with fluted and carved legs, and garlands of flowers in the box enclosing the manuals. He kept the marvellous external decoration, set on a gilded ground by a decorator from Bérain's circle in or around 1720, a sumptuous still life on the top surface of the lid: fruit, flowers, a music manuscript, and a French recorder, representing hearing, smell and taste. On the bentside, pairs of child musicians and doves symbolise the tender emotions of love, and monkeys are there too, symbolising crafty complicity. Inside the lid, which was enlarged in 1756, is the original Flemish decoration showing the muses on Mount Helicon, presided over by Apollo, god of music and poetry, who is charming Olympus. Pegasus, sent by Poseidon, brings Helicon, inflated with pleasure, to order with a hefty kick. Listening to the music, the mountain almost attained the heavens, but reminded of his place, allows the Hippocrene spring to issue from his side. The presence of Diana and Daphne is also suggested, for both were close to Apollo, one his twin sister, and the other the girl who escaped his love-making by getting her father to turn her into a laurel bush. These images echo each other: inside the instrument are serious, edifying scenes from mythology, on the outside, instinctive invitations to sensual pleasures. Everything leads us into an allegory of the senses: at once creation and limitation of enjoyment, in love and in music.
Michel Robin - Musée de la musique, Paris
Musée de la musique
At the heart of the Cité de la musique, a public institution in the 19th arrondissement of Paris whose brief includes organising public concerts, the Musée de la musique is the crossroads where heritage interacts with repertoire, and instruments from earlier times encounter their more recent descendants. Here, the major developments of a universal art shared by every culture in the world can be better understood, the materials and actions that gave birth to successive generations of instruments engendering a fuller understanding of the music they bring to our ears.
Today any Museum of Music will increasingly be recognised for what you can hear there; this tendency has been followed by the majority of museums working in this field. Those instruments in the Paris Musée that are in playing order are lent to musicians for concert use, for archive recordings, for soundtracks to accompany visits to the museum itself, or even for commercial broadcasting.
This recording is a return to the musical and instrumental realities of another epoch, in which the Musée de la musique is proud to participate. Under the fingers of Kenneth Weiss, the celebrated Ruckers-Taskin harpsichord from our collection offers a fresh perspective on J. S. Bach's benchmark composition, The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Eric de Visscher - Director, Musée de la musique, Cité de la musique, Paris
Book I, 1722
Preludes & Fugues N°s 1-12, BWV 846-857
1 - 2 N°1 in C major, BWV 846 - 2’19 & 2’02
3 - 4 N°2 in C minor, BWV 847 - 1’34 & 1’42
5 - 6 N°3 in C-sharp major, BWV 848 - 1’24 & 2’49
7 - 8 N°4 in C-sharp minor, BWV 849 - 2’55 & 4’09
9 - 10 N°5 in D major, BWV 850 - 1’13 & 1’59
11 - 12 N°6 in D minor, BWV 851 - 1’18 & 2’29
13 - 14 N°7 in E-flat major, BWV 852 - 3’48 & 1’43
15 - 16 N°8 in E-flat minor, BWV 853 - 3’08 & 5’14
17 - 18 N°9 in E major, BWV 854 - 1’30 & 1’21
19 - 20 N°10 in E minor, BWV 855 - 2’17 & 1’16
21 - 22 N°11 in F major, BWV 856 - 1’11 & 1’34
23 - 24 N°12 in F minor, BWV 857 - 2’08 & 3’49
Total CD 55’06
Book I, 1722
Preludes & Fugues N°s 13-24, BWV 858-869
1 - 2 N°13 in F-sharp major, BWV 858 - 1’09 & 2’15
3 - 4 N°14 in F-sharp minor, BWV 859 - 1’10 & 2’43
5 - 6 N°15 in G major, BWV 860 - 0’56 & 3’02
7 - 8 N°16 in G minor, BWV 861 - 2’18 & 2’01
9 - 10 N°17 in A-flat major, BWV 862 - 1’20 & 2’17
11 - 12 N°18 in G-sharp minor, BWV 863 - 1’52 & 2’42
13 - 14 N°19 in A major, BWV 864 - 1’12 & 2’29
15 - 16 N°20 in A minor, BWV 865 - 1’15 & 5’23
17 - 18 N°21 in B-flat major, BWV 866 - 1’21 & 2’00
19 - 20 N°22 in B-flat minor, BWV 867 - 2’17 & 3’38
21 - 22 N°23 in B major, BWV 868 - 1’03 & 2’07
23 - 24 N°24 in B minor, BWV 869 - 3’59 & 6’26
Total CD 56’10
Book II, 1742
Preludes & Fugues N°s 1-12, BWV 870-881
1 - 2 N°1 in C major, BWV 870 - 2’31 & 1’50
3 - 4 N°2 in C minor, BWV 871 - 3’00 & 2’28
5 - 6 N°3 in C-sharp major, BWV 872 - 1’43 & 2’00
7 - 8 N°4 in C-sharp minor, BWV 873 - 3’42 & 2’20
9 - 10 N°5 in D major, BWV 874 - 3’24 & 2’32
11 - 12 N°6 in D minor, BWV 875 - 1’40 & 1’35
13 - 14 N°7 in E-flat major, BWV 876 - 2’42 & 1’44
15 - 16 N°8 in D-sharp minor, BWV 877 - 4’28 & 3’45
17 - 18 N°9 in E major, BWV 878 - 2’59 & 2’41
19 - 20 N°10 in E minor, BWV 879 - 1’43 & 2’55
21 - 22 N°11 in F major, BWV 880 - 3’54 & 1’39
23 - 24 N°12 in F minor, BWV 881 - 2’31 & 2’01
Total CD 62’04
Book II, 1742
Preludes & Fugues N°s 13-24, BWV 882-893
1 - 2 N°13 in F-sharp major, BWV 882 - 3’40 & 2’36
3 - 4 N°14 in F-sharp minor, BWV 883 - 3’16 & 3’36
5 - 6 N°15 in G major, BWV 884 - 1’58 & 1’14
7 - 8 N°16 in G minor, BWV 885 - 2’02 & 3’09
9 - 10 N°17 in A-flat major, BWV 886 - 4’12 & 2’34
11 - 12 N°18 in G-sharp minor, BWV 887 - 2’26 & 4’26
13 - 14 N°19 in A major, BWV 888 - 1’58 & 1’32
15 - 16 N°20 in A minor, BWV 889 - 2’30 & 1’59
17 - 18 N°21 in B-flat major, BWV 890 - 4’14 & 2’40
19 - 20 N°22 in B-flat minor, BWV 891 - 3’00 & 4’23
21 - 22 N°23 in B major, BWV 892 - 2’12 & 3’35
23 - 24 N°24 in B minor, BWV 893 - 2’18 & 1’53
Total CD 67’35
Commentaries by Kenneth Weiss
On Friday 18th September 2015 we began our weekly streamings of the complete 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier played by Kenneth Weiss. Each post includes a prelude and fugue from Kenneth’s 2013 recording on the splendid Ruckers-Taskin harpsichord in the Musée de la musique in Paris, and remains available on streaming for one week.
We are also posting a short commentary by Kenneth on his evolving relationship with the work as a performing musician, and his reflections will come from the viewpoint of a keyboard player for whom daily practice of this master work has formed a musical persona.
As an introduction, Kenneth writes: "Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is widely acknowledged as a pinnacle of Western Classical Music; yet rarely heard in concert halls. These fascinating, game changing compositions - the basis of our musical language and culture, a part of our communal vocabulary, - should not be relegated only to practice rooms, competition requirements, and music theory lessons".
Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846
"The C Major Prelude from Book 1 is the most widely recognized work in the Well-Tempered Clavier. I can’t remember the first time I heard it or played it: it was always there. The Prelude is a uniquely peaceful work in the gloriously unencumbered key (no sharps or flats) of C Major. With it's harmonic scheme all mapped out, the player glides through each harmony, spread out in 16th note arpeggios and repeats each harmony twice before proceeding leisurely in the progression. In repeating each figure, Bach achieves a meditative quality, occasionally made anxious by diminished harmonies - but only momentarily before falling back into it's welcoming simplicity. This piece is a joy to play in public as it holds within it an optimistic power that beguiles all listeners."
"This Fugue proudly pronounces it's role as the first Fugue of the WTC. There are 24 entries of the 14 note theme (the number 24 ingeniously corresponds to the number of works in Book 1!). Some Fugues share sentiments with their Preludes, others seem entirely unrelated. This Fugue theme seems to follow the Prelude in its embrace of the wide open plains of C Major by rising a fourth stepwise, falling a third and then jumping a fourth and never encountering an accidental. The challenge in dense polyphony as encountered here is to give each voice its individual shape while overseeing and making clear the major harmonic and architectural points of interest that occur. The range is large and the demands of clarity are great. To play this Fugue is to feel as if one is literally taking possession of the keyboard."
Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 847
"Keyboard players usually find the left hand weaker than the right - a dominance that is reflected in the compositions they play. The right hand leads with melodic, florid writing: the left hand is often relegated to accompanying it. In this prelude, Bach employs the revolutionary technique of writing for both hands equally, using a steady stream of continuous 16th notes. Harmony is paramount. The melody is only implied by piecing together the first soprano notes in the repeated harmonic progression. The relentless pulling and releasing of consonances and dissonances creates a restless, frenetic movement - an urgency that peaks in a tempo change. In one of Bach's very rare tempo indications, he marks Presto - a double time effect where ever more virtuosity is demanded of the left hand. This is followed by a short recitative passage and concludes with a flourish in the right hand over a C pedal. Strict evenness of the hands, consideration of articulation, questions of over holding notes (or not) and the unrelenting obsessive quality of this prelude all come into play in deciding a convincing tempo."
"Central to the 20 note theme is the thrice repeated semi-tone figure. This figure gives the theme and the entire fugue a rigorous quality. This is offset by the flowing direction of the stepwise 16th notes of the secondary subject. Frequent use of thirds help the sequences flow easily. With it's many accidental alterations, contrary motion and large jumps, I find the alertness necessary to properly play this piece makes it an excellent ‘warm-up’ fugue."
Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Major, BWV 848
"Close to the top of the list of keys rarely encountered, the key of C sharp Major, with its 7 sharps, is incredibly luminous. By raising almost all of its notes up a halfstep-double sharps occur frequently - I feel a literally ‘heightened’ physical aspect when playing and in turn an upswing of mood and energy. Bach uses this plateau to project unbridled delight. With its brisk motor rhythm of broken arpeggios that jump from hand to hand, halting - and catchy-syncopated episode and dare devil coda of ascending and descending arpeggios - this energetic Prelude is full of fun and exuberance."
"The joy continues and even amplifies in the Fugue. The light-hearted quality of this Fugue - and the extreme difficulty of playing in this key and making it seem effortless - make it among the most virtuosic and challenging of the Fugues in the WTC."
Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor, BWV 849
"Pensive, winding lines spin out in a stream of consciousness monologue in this Prelude. Beginning with an apprehensive disposition, searing highs and lows follow and make the seemingly once possible positive outcome in this reflective train of thought vanish. This turn to darker sentiments sets the stage for the extreme gravitas of the Fugue."
"With its three fugal subjects and five voiced texture, this large-scale work is full of unsettling emotions. The fatalistic stoicism of the initial subject, the listless meandering of the second and the stubborn struggling of the third come together to create a compelling portrait of angst and grief. This Prelude and Fugue, with its arc from quiet sadness to full-blown anguish, is among the most emotionally powerful in the WTC."
Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 850
"This prelude is an etude in agility for the right hand.The left hand keeps time like a metronome - incessant and unwavering. In order to play this piece evenly and quickly, individual strength of the fourth and fifth fingers is needed. At over one minute in length, endurance is also necessary for this upbeat and effervescent work."
"Employing the vigorous double dotted figures characteristic of the French style,this theme is made up of a rising group of 32nd notes and a taut rhythmic descent. Noble restraint and exacting precision create an uplifting optimism. This Prelude and Fugue pair share traits of rigorous strength and brilliance."
Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 851
"This piece is among the obvious technique building Preludes in the Well Tempered Clavier. Here, Bach proposes a continuous triplet figure for the right hand - each triplet figure is accompanied by dart-like eighth notes in the left hand. This taut rhythmic figure moves vertiginously over the keyboard, creating jumps that require precision and mastery.Here, the powerfully dark key of dminor is heightened by insistent rhythm to create a feeling of obsessive agitation."
"A sparse texture and limited range give a claustrophobic feel to this Fugue. Initially appealing to the intellect, with its abrupt stacatto notes and inversions of the subject, one is slowly guided into an uncomfortable universe of unease."
Gentle waves; then, a starburst
Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 852
"After a free-form introduction that firmly establishes the key of E flat Major, this Prelude has a brief fugato passage before settling into the core of the piece. This core features seemingly endless streams of a seven-note figure. Rising and falling in step-wise intervals, this gentle movement has a pleasing quality due to its flowing regularity and lack of harmonic conflict. One thinks of the peaceful effect of observing the ebb and tide of gentle waves."
"With an energetic and brief witty subject, this Fugue flies by - an ebullient starburst of a piece."
A rose by any other name…
Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Minor / D-sharp Minor, BWV 853
"Although enharmonically identical, Bach chose to write this Prelude in E-flat minor (with its 6 flats) and this Fugue in d-sharp minor (with its 6 sharps)."
"A recitative styled plaint is accompanied by large, often arpeggiated chords, creating a mood of despair. Despite being written in 3/2, it feels somewhat akin to a marche funèbre with its deliberate implacable mouvement. This desperate dance, in its doomsday anguish,is a raw, vulnerable work."
"This Fugue - quiet, mournful and ultimately disturbing - undergoes augmentation and inversion of its theme throughout this large-scale piece."
Ebb and Flow
Prelude and Fugue in E Major, BWV 854
"The prelude has a fragrant bucolic character with just a touch of melancholy. A tender dialogue progresses freely between the voices halting only to the descending chromatic figure that appears at both major cadences. This figure seems to hint at the fragility of sustaining only positive (happy) thoughts: we go with the flow."
"This rollicking Fugue starts off with a witty two note subject. Once our attention is piqued, Bach carries on with consecutive entries and brisk lines of continuous sixteenth notes. This is an enjoyable set to play - benevolent and limber, quick-witted and friendly - a pair of friends that are good to visit with often."
Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 855
"The Prelude is divided into two sections. The first contains an anxious recitative-style melody that seems to float over a hypnotically churning bass. Then, a Presto marking creates the effect of doubling the tempo - and the emotion. What started as a refrain of despair suddenly becomes over-wrought and frantic."
"With only 2 voices, the driving force in this Fugue is its subject. Featuring chromatics and modulation, the theme - and the Fugue-project an erratic and frenzied state."
Prelude and Fugue No 11 in F Major, BWV 856
"The Prelude pivots in a seesaw motion where upward and downward figures trade off with extended trills. These trills are akin to a wave of the hand - that most delightful and universal way of seeking and acknowledging recognition. Paired together, these two figures harmoniously unite in a good-natured and playful moment."
"A sunny nature, a dance related sway, and a regular use of stretto - a close succession of overlapping voices - create a benevolent moment that teases at us with it's short duration of only 90 seconds."
Handle with Care
Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857
"Advancing in increments, this Prelude is a study of an austere and weary fragility. When it finds its footing, it unveils a sublime moment of aching sweetness before falling back into its utterances of struggle and doubt."
"A solid and inflexible subject of neighboring intervals opens this dramatic Fugue. The original claustrophobic feel is offset by the secondary subject which explores feelings of hope with its ascending sixteenth note figures. Bach goes back and forth between the two: stepping back a notch when the discourse gets too heated. The superimpositions of motifs towards the end of the piece create a multi-textured hymn-like effect."
Quirk and Spark
Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Major, BWV 858
"There are two anomalies in this score: the rarely encountered key of F-sharp Major and the seldom seen time signature of 12/16. Despite brief cadences in even rarer keys - D-sharp minor, A-sharp minor and G-sharp minor - this fluid piece, with its lighthearted syncopations, appears to use mental acrobatics to create a playful atmosphere."
"The forthright initial subject is soon ignited into a light motion by supple sixteenth note figures. A general character of composed reason pervades."
Yin and Yang
Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Minor, BWV 859
"Curling rivulets are restrained by punctuated exclamations. Each force - rigid and flowing - join to create a harmonious duality."
"The subject rises a fifth in a spiraling fashion; twice taking chromatic steps backwards, before falling diatonically to its original starting note. A secondary figure of repeated descending notes adds resistance to the mounting subject. Ascension and struggle, opposed yet somehow complementary, are interconnected in the end."
Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 860
"This prelude, a technical tour de force, features rapid sixteenth-note triplets; the different configurations demand a good deal of dexterity. The hands must stretch to accomplish cascading arpeggios - the thumb pivoting as its own axis in patterns of increasing intervals. Written in the light and breezy key of G major, with a few accidental alterations, this Prelude is driven by a cheerful energy."
"The theme - a mix of rolling stepwise notes and playful seventh jumps - has a duple meter movement giving it a sense of swing. This is an extended work; the subject undergoing inversion-one is propelled by many jaunty episodes before reaching a dazzling finish with two show-stopping fermatas."
Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 861
"An extended trill creates a heightened state of expression at the beginning of this emotive piece. With three intertwining voices, this Prelude casts a spell of ethereal and quiet discontent."
"The subject of this Fugue is of the question/answer variety: a strong statement is followed by a rest and then a response. Here, the statement is stark (a combination of potent minor seconds and a stirring leap) and the response (indifferent neighboring notes) is one of resignation. Captivating the listener with its intricate writing, the Fugue seems to continue where the Prelude left off, leading the listener into a state of full blown angst."
Prelude and Fugue in A-flat Major, BWV 862
“A lively rhythmic leitmotif keeps this piece cheerful and buoyant. Passagework, in the not entirely comfortable key of A-flat major, requires nimble playing and offers a splendid display of cleverness and agility.”
“An uplifting and optimistic subject starts off this elaborate Fugue. A procession of contrapuntal marvels follow and offer colorful variety in this majestic work.”
Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp Minor, BWV 863
“With an eerie calm, this Prelude embarks on a journey through the wilds of G-sharp minor: a daunting key that comprises 5 sharps. Bach adds many nuances as he slithers down a shifting path - alterations or accidentals such as the lowering or raising of a note. These adjustments reflect the emotionally tentative feeling of the work as it slowly musters the resolve to move into unchartered territory.”
“Strict and stark with an air of dread, danger seems to lurk at every turn in this Fugue. Double sharps and cadences that occur in D-sharp minor and A-sharp major mirror the discomfort of these emotions, yet also unveil a compelling and expressive beauty.”
Prelude and Fugue in A Major, BWV 864
“Three gems - an energetic jolt of 16th notes, a descending chromatic line of unanticipated seriousness and a figure resembling an exaggerated sigh-are revealed in this tightly knit work. These elements appear in different configurations: the joy of discovery materializing with each new appearance.”
“This Fugue's theme begins as a single isolated note. After our attention is piqued, the theme continues with an upward, disjointed series of displaced metric accents. The effect is comical and amusing. Structurally divided into three parts - the central section adds even more wit with lengthy intervals of sixteenth notes-each section delights in off beat rhythmic invention and unearths unexpected bounty.”
The odd couple
Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 865
"Perhaps due to the vast length of this Fugue, Bach chose to expedite this Prelude. Short in duration and simple in design, this two voiced work features a curious figure that resembles a measured trill (or mordent). This figure creates some dramatic tension but is offset by the benign swagger of the compound time signature of 9/8. The effect is slight and reserved: a diminutive warm-up to the epic proportions that follow."
"Surprising in its radical expansion of all previous Fugues in Book 1, this Fugue is a showpiece of densely wrought counterpoint. Extreme technical prowess is needed to circumnavigate this magisterial contrapuntal tour de force."
Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major, BWV 866
"This Prelude - an exhibition of dexterity, control and touch - is meant to impress with its ornate figurations. It is written in the unstructured and flamboyant style of the Italian toccata; ideally composed for the harpsichord - idiomatic broken chords divided between the hands, recitative style passages followed by virtuosic runs."
"Sweetly naive, this pleasant Fugue is easy on the ears. The theme undergoes inversion and weaves arabesques around its two countersubjects. The result is harmonious and beguiling.”
Leap of faith
Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor, BWV 867
"A heavy and meditative state is created by an oppressively dense texture and a plodding and unaltered repeated rhythmic motive. This hypnotic lament exposes feelings of frailty, suffering and yearning."
"A supreme example of Bach's power to speak directly to our innermost selves, this 5 voiced Fugue is a claustrophobic and tragic work. Bach gives us strength in his understanding and reflections on human emotions - we feel acknowledged and not alone. He speaks through the performer and the performer speaks through him. Bach can ease our doubt and pain by expressing it so clearly."
Prelude and Fugue in B Major, BWV 868
"Composed in an improvisational style, this short and joyful work has a hidden challenge for the performer. The key of B Major, with its 5 sharps, is often clumsy and requires a good deal of skill to appear effortless."
"The theme of this Fugue is proud and dignified. As the entries proliferate, sentiments of pride and fulfillment escalate."
Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 869
"A striking key and a tempo indication define the 24th and final Prelude of the 1st book of the Well Tempered Clavier. Based on the inherent affects of different keys, B minor was seen - at the time - as a key of patience. As in Bach’s b minor mass, awaiting one’s fate was submission to divine power. Given the grief laden sentiment in this work, Bach felt the need to include the tempo marking 'Andante'. It is there to avoid wallowing and to literally walk ('Andante' deriving from the Italian 'Andare') steadily and calmly into one’s final reckoning."
"Time appears to be frozen in this long and utterly distraught chromatic theme. The severity of each entry takes one’s breath away with its tortured fatalism. The suffering subsides periodically with glorious rays of light and purity; yet always ebbs back to sighs, jabs and jolts. It pushes forward, it goes beyond until the end. The experience is shattering."