Bach’s paired keyboard pieces known as the Well-tempered clavier is among his most appreciated works for keyboard. He wrote two volumes of these paired pieces, each pair in its own key, a coupling of prelude and fugue. Bach traverses all major and minor keys, leaving us 24 pairs in book one and another 24 pairs in book two. The collection therefore is sometimes referred to as the “48.”
The prelude and fugue in B minor, BWV 869, closes the first collection. Both the prelude and fugue are written in a binary form, that we might write |A:|B:|, meaning there is a repeat sign indicating that the performer play both parts twice. Repeats most often appear in baroque music in dance forms, but here, neither piece is near what we might recognize as a “dance.” The first movement, instead, is in a trio format, with two clearly discernible voices in the right hand, and a walking bass in the left. The three-voiced texture, as we might expect, carries over to the fugue, which starts with a rather long subject. It just so happens that this piece, the two parts together, is a favorite of mine because I think it’s profound music; I also think it’s often poorly performed because it is misunderstood.
The Modern String Quartet has recorded book one of the “48,” and their reading of BWV 869 gets at the possibilities. In the prelude, the bass is played with a thick pizzicato in the bass line by the cello, and it really gets at the “walking bass” aspect of the piece. The tackle the fugue with a rather speedy pace, breaking up the long subject with different articulations. It’s good listening, but it misses, I think, the profound possibilities.
András Schiff got kudos for his “48,” recorded on ECM New Series. He plays with a common articulation in all three hands, but I fear takes the tempo of the prelude way too fast. He’s not alone. Almost everyone takes the prelude way too fast for my taste. There’s so much going on in the harmony at that speed that the result sounds trivial. His fugue explores all those chromatic tones with equal weight, with a tempo I like, but seemingly ignoring the shape of the subject’s melody.
Fridrich Gulda, for me, both “got” the piece, but also “ruined it” for me. Once I heard his performance (Philips Classics), nothing else would do. He takes about equal time to perform both prelude and fugue (8.5 - 8.25 minutes respectively), with the prelude being the one that might surprise, his reading longer than most.
He also does something in the repeats, adding variation with extra ornaments and filigree in the right hand’s two voices. He also has a sense of shape to both pieces, applying a giant crescendo across the prelude, then again, with the fugue. His crisp articulation and even playing make the performance, for me, come close to matching the profound notes from Bach’s pen.
In that prelude, he reveals the drama hidden in the right hand, an continuous series of suspensions, tension followed by resolution, over and over again, that’s so delicious. At his chosen tempo, parts sound almost simple and too clean, how could this be high art? But the way it all fits together by the end of the last line calls out to what would later be the hallmark of a Mozart melody: it all just fits together so well and while the beauty is easily recognized, it’s not hard to imagine the genius that makes it sound so perfect, so easy…
Bach’s first 24 are my favorite set of the “48,” and I might dare say, I like BWV 869 the best. There are many fast numbers that are tasty, if not short, but it’s when we take his last couplet a little more slowly, and take the time to emphasize the harmony, if not the drama folded into one large fugue subject, that the last prelude and fugue reveals its true book-end status.