Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I
Steven Devine, harpsichord
Resonus Classics RES10239. 2 CDs. 55’06+56.13

This is the first of two double-CD volumes of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), and covers the Preludes and Fugues 1 to 24 (BWV846-869) that form Book 1 of ‘The 48’. This musically intelligent and absorbing recording by Steven Devine demonstrates that performing Bach (or any music, for that matter) is far more the merely playing all the notes in the right order. His subtle use of articulation and rhetoric and his understanding of the Baroque idea of building up musical ideas from small motifs make for an absorbing recording that will invite repeated listening. He manages to negotiate that fine line between presenting a personal interpretation and those over-mannered performances that might be fine for a live recital but is usually off-putting on the repeat listening that a recording allows. With obvious respect to Bach and these extraordinary miniatures of musical craft, Devine brings a wide range of interpretations, matching the underlying mood of each Prelude and Fugue perfectly.

Devine uses an impressive-sounding harpsichord by Colin Booth (2000) after a 1710 instrument by Johann Christof Fleischer. It is recorded in a church in North Yorkshire which imparts an attractive surrounding acoustic bloom whilst maintaining clarity of the notes. In his CD notes, Devine discusses the temperament used for the recording, and the possible interpretations of Bach’s own intended tuning – which was not the modern-day equal temperament, but a temperament that could play in all keys, albeit with some ‘key colour’ in the more remote keys. The temperament used in this recording is based on Kirnberger III but, if I read Devine’s notes correctly, with some adjustments to individual notes for specific pieces to allow the intended key colour as well as to respond to the natural harmonics of the harpsichord itself. The result is appropriate, with recognisable, but not over-done key colour.

The music is Volume 1 was dated 1722 and was composed “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”. Devine certainly belongs in the latter category, but his recordings will appeal to both categories of listener or player. I found his playing of the fugues particularly enlightening. If the thought of listening to 24 fugues one after the other sounds heavy-going, the combination of Bach’s musical genius and Devine’s musical intelligence will convince that this most mathematical and methodical approach to composition is capable of inspiration. And, of course, the free-composed Preludes are delightful miniatures in a variety of styles.

More information can be found here.