Had Johann Sebastian Bach known that his two Books of Preludes and Fugues would become familiarly known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, the ‘48’, and serve as concert music, he would have been furious. He intended these pieces to be a resource for students as exercises in keyboard mastery and as a demonstration of how to write effectively and creatively in all the major and minor keys of the tempered scale. Although the pieces contain some brilliantly creative rhythmic, harmonic and textural elements, it is something of a wonder that audiences crowd concert-halls to hear a reading of either Book. However, Bach generates a wide variety of approaches to the ‘prelude and fugue’ design, but the frequency of extended contrapuntal passages can become wearing. So the challenge for a performer is to find an approach that combines masterful technique with an interpretation that remains true to the music yet gives it character, color and nuance.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard made a valiant effort to find the balance between these aspects. His flawless technique is matched by a remarkable clarity of line that perfectly poises primo thematic material with inner voices often buried in the welter of polyphonically complex passages. Fast passages were spirited and energized, while slow ones never suffered sluggishness. Aimard eschewed the pedal for the most part, thus enabling not only thematic entrances in the Fugues but also for inner parts to be crystal-clear. He frequently reinforced bravura phrases with thrusting accents to enhance their dramatic aspects. Contrariwise, gentler Preludes were conveyed with elegance. Aimard also brought out puckish wit and tongue-in-cheek humor.
The dance-like quality of several of these pieces is often overlooked. Aimard’s rhythmically nuanced approach brought out this interesting facet of Bach’s music. In addition extensive passages of technically daunting figuration whisked by evenly and without noticeable effort; such skillful playing is praiseworthy on its own merits.
Aimard’s accounts were intelligently conceived and brilliantly executed. Although the final, extensive Prelude and Fugue (the B minor) is hardly a showstopper, Aimard gave it extra expressivity and, after the concluding chord, kept his hands high above the keyboard for a rather long time, presumably to forestall an abrupt outburst of applause that might too quickly break the mood. Aimard’s was a masterly performance of Book I – focused, subtle, deep, and full of personality – and is already recorded on Deutsche Grammophon 479 2784.