- The Well-Tempered Clavier (24), collection of preludes & fugues, Book I, BWV 846-869 (BC L80-103)
The casual buyer might stumble on this two-disc set and assume, from the presence of the well-worn Book One of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" and from the reliable imprint of the Harmonia Mundi USA label, that this was a safe, mainstream choice for this central Bach repertory item. It is anything but. The good news is that some online sampling will help listeners determine whether Egarr's approach is to their liking. The first thing to know about this performance is that Egarr subscribes to a currently controversial theory that by "well-tempered" Bach did not mean "equal-tempered" but intended a tuning encoded in the decorative figures with which he adorned the title page of the work. Leaving aside the pros and cons of this approach, there are two things to note. First, Egarr's pretense at finding it "amazing" that any reference book author could still believe the traditional view that Bach wrote the work as a demonstration of equal temperamnet is disingenuous. Second, and the more important for the casual listener, is the musical result of this tuning -- it tends to intensify and individualize the character of each key, whereas equal temperament tends to flatten out the differences. The major keys turn out brighter, the minor keys, for the most part, murkier. In Egarr's view, the whole cycle is very much a unit, to be played through rather than excerpted, and one that embodies a dramatic sequence of events. His playing emphasizes the differences among the individual pieces, principally through rhythms that sometimes seem to be shifting constantly. This can be disconcerting in the fugues -- sample a few of the fugues in minor keys to see what you think of the effect. On the whole, Egarr's playing is something like that of the old-school pianists whose Romantic interpretations of this work were for many years the only ones you could get, but the Romantic moves have been redeployed in service of a particular theory about what constitutes authentic perforomance. It's anything but mainstream, but there will certainly exist listeners attuned to Egarr's vision of the "Well-Tempered Clavier," and they will greet this recording with excitement. The sound is appropriately dramatic, and the Dutch harpsichord copy used is well suited to the realization of Egarr's aims.