I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Prelude and Fugue in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

Gulda WTC I really like BWV 869. Fans of Bach already know that the compose wrote two collections of preludes and fugues for keyboard. The names of these today go by The Well-Tempered Clavier, respectfully, books 1 and 2. Within each, Bach wrote a pair of pieces in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys, giving us 48 pairs altogether. The preludes are not so prescriptive in form, but the fugues are. Fugues are a type of counterpoint, where a theme is played in multiple "voices." Fugal writing was one of Bach's strengths, and they are to be admired for the thinking required to put them together. For me, they're like exquisite little puzzles. You have to listen to 23 of these sets before you get to the prelude and fugue in b-minor, BWV 869. The prelude, for me, is a masterpiece, that I've come to really admire over the years. It certainly deserves it's own blog post. The prelude is composed as a binary piece, meaning there's a first half and a second half, and each is written with a repeat, so we hear them both twice. The prelude is written in three voices, with a walking bass line in the left hand and two equal voices in the right. This texture is popular in the Baroque, and is typically called a trio sonata texture. It's hard for me to play, due to the sharps in the key of b-minor. I once arranged this prelude for three trombones, moving it to an easier-to-play key. It was very rewarding. The fugue is a long one, taking for its bait a long theme. The three voices are at play again, this time, however, the bass voice has a more equal footing with the texture. When the little back and forth thing goes on between the upper voices, the fugue makes me smile. The whole piece is well done, and the pair as a whole are delightful music written in a way that so much of Bach is, transposable to different interpretations, instrumentation, and the like. We might say it's universal music. I thought I'd share some notes on some recordings from my collection. Edward Aldwell (6:30/10:21). The co-author of my music theory textbook is a good a place as any to start with. His rendition on piano is clearly recorded, with a reasonable acoustic, intimately captured. His range of dynamics isn't extreme, but he's often found taking rubato stretches where he feels them, both in the prelude and the fugue. The opening is humble, and soft; the bass notes are detached but not short. The two treble voices dominate the texture. His interpretation doesn't miss some of the more delicious moments, but I ultimately find the performance lacking in gravitas. Keith Jarrett (5:24/5:44). Jazz improviser Keith Jarrett has recorded both books by Bach, including his French Suites and the Goldberg Variations. His reading of book one is on piano. While the sound is different, he clearly is playing in the same mindset as Edward Aldwell. They both chose similar tempi, it seemed, but Jarrett ultimately pushes things just a bit faster, with less use of pause and rubato. Jarrett also detaches the bass line less, playing it just short of rubato. His slight shaping of lines is nicely done but I think the music calls for this to stand out even more. The same goes for his range of dynamics. Jarrett's aim, the notes tell us, is to get out of the way of the music, and let Bach's art stand on its own. This is a noble calling, and that might not work for much music. But remember I said Bach's music has a universal quality about it; Jarrett's interpretation isn't a favorite, but given enough imagination, the genius in this pair are allowed to surface given the otherwise vanilla reading. His approach for the prelude works; the fugue is less successful. I find Jarrett's reading to be interesting, given the number of years I've lived with it. As a very expressive player, I'm always surprised by his reservation in being more expressive with such rich fabric as the WTC. Kenneth Gilbert (9:43 total). Canadian harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert doesn't take his time; he keeps a very regular pulse, until the ending cadences. His repeats in the prelude, too, don't add any extra ornamentation, which wouldn't be foreign during a repeat. Like Jarrett, the performance is pretty vanilla. Bach stands alone to be judged. Which not only is a deliberate choice by Gilbert, but seemingly a lot of performers. This music is so rich; why not take a stand and say something with the fabric Bach has sewn for us? The fugue is performed with more a statement, perhaps, from Gilbert. I just find the tempo way too fast for my taste. The acoustic of the entire set of both books by Gilbert on Archiv Produktion is very "live," but the instrument is well-captured. Glenn Gould (2:15/3:45). We might expect Gould to be the winner with timings. Keep in mind, however, that he doesn't take the repeats in the prelude. His detached playing style fits the music, I feel. Although the tempo might just work if it was treated with the freedom of rubato in parts, it is those parts that sound rushed, even though Gould's tempo is pretty regular. Despite the speed, I prefer Gould's reading of the prelude to all those mentioned thus far. The fugue is taken so fast, however, that with its chromaticism, it almost sounds "20th century." Modernist, for sure. You can enjoy it, you just have to be paying attention and drill into the performance completely as to not miss anything juicy. Gould's reading is very interesting, but not the best. Pierre Hantaï (3:58/6:58). French harpsichordist Hantaï hasn't taken us on a trip with Book 2 yet, however, his reading of Book 1 was done on a very fruity-sounding harpsichord, closely miked, and beautifully captured. He takes the first piece at way too fast a speed, but does entertain us with ornaments on the repeats. His phrasing and choice to use rubato (albeit not enough), is welcomed. The choice of tempo for the fugue, then, is a puzzler, given the speed he takes the prelude. It's slow in comparison, but not at the glacier-forming speed that Aldwell adopted. For me, this is a good tempo for the fugue, taken carefully, but almost ideally to admire genius in Bach's counterpoint. His phrasing is well-done, and his tempo is maintained throughout the reading. I like Hantaï's reading of the fugue a lot. Friedrich Gulda (8:25/8:16). Gulda played jazz in addition to classical works, but Bach wasn't his normal territory. Despite that, I think he's one of the strongest interpreters of Bach with his releases on Philips of the WTC in both books, recorded in the early 1970s. He did what so many others have been afraid to do: he injected his own interpretations into the music. His reading of the prelude is a masterstroke; it's taken at a very slow speed, but upon hearing it, you realize it's an expert's choice. The left hand bass is broken and steady, with the two upper voices held long. His phrasing plan for both halves of the prelude and the entire fugue is the same: start out soft, and end loud. It's simple, and it would have been impossible on a harpsichord. But did Bach write for the harpsichord? He had access in his latest years to the pianoforte, and his whole life to the clavichord. I mention these options only because Gulda's solution is yet another masterstroke: growing the piece's intensity over time feels so right. His use of ornamentation in the prelude on repeats too is so tastefully done, making good sense of his initial choice of tempo. His reading of the prelude, if it could be transformed into cuisine, would be a very delicious morsel. The only shame is in the tape hiss that plagues the entire reading of both books. And I doubt he ever got the credit for his vision that was enjoyed by the likes of Gould, whose recording was made in the previous decade. The tempo of the fugue, if you're keeping score, doesn't beat Aldwell for length, but is still slow. Just as Gould made sense of the fugue at a fast speed that "worked," Gulda does the same thing at the opposite end of the spectrum. If you have patience, you're rewarded at the end with the double intensity of volume with touch and speed. The result is nothing short of sublime. As you might guess, I really like Gulda's reading of BWV 869. I can't say he "wins" with every reading of every prelude and fugue from Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, but his recording demonstrates how one man's interpretation can make a profound influence. He tinkered with each set to figure out, I think, what was special about it, and to illuminate those qualities for the listener. Not all fans of Bach need this much "amplification" to enjoy the music. Yet, it's so nice to hear. It's certainly the performance that made, for me, BWV 869 become a favorite. I invite you to find similar comparisons to make with pieces you like. Don't be afraid to travel off the "historically-informed trail" to find an interpretation that amplifies an otherwise unassuming piece to masterpiece proportions.

Frenchie December

Rameau for Due Clavecins