Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier, Book One

JS Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier, Book One
Colin Booth, harpsichord
Soundboard SBCD218. 2CDs, 59’31+62’12

This is the first of two double-CD volumes of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier) from Colin Booth. It covers the 24 Preludes and Fugues (BWV846-869) written in all 24 major and minor keys forming what is now known as Book 1 of ‘The 48’. It only survives in manuscript copies from 1722, with no printed edition unto around 1800. The manuscript title page announces that it 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”.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of the first examples of music using all 24 key signatures at a time when tuning systems generally worked about the use of more than a handful of keys. Despite these technical issues, the musical content is extraordinary, despite the rather ‘dry’ titles of Prelude And Fugue. The free-composed Preludes are delightful miniatures in a wide variety of styles while the more formal structure of the Fugues, which cover all the complexities of the form, display an astonishing range of moods and characters within the structure of frugal writing.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is also an early example of the formalising of the pairing of Prelude and Fugue. Many of Bach’s organ works that are now known as ‘Prelude and Fugue’ were only put together well after his death, having been intended as standalone pieces. Up to Bach’s time, the generic term Praeludium generally referred to a single piece that usually included one or more fugal passages.

Colin Booth is something of a one-man music machine. He self-produces and records his own CDs on his own label, using his own home and workshop as a recording studio, playing harpsichords that he has built himself, and marketing them through his own website. He writes his own comprehensive programme notes, with all but one of the footnote references made to his own writings and adds a plug for his own self-published book. Shorn of any of the additional inputs that most musicians encourage (or put up with) in their recordings, performances, or the usual peer review that applies to their scholarly research, Booth allows himself considerable freedom to experiment and follow his own path. This recording is a splendid example of the freedom this approach brings, producing an interpretation that is sensitive, engaging and musical.

Much of the discussion on The Well-Tempered Clavier is on the tuning system. Colin Booth provides an extended essay on temperament, and his reason for choosing the temperament known as Kirnberger III. The harpsichord is new, dating from 2016 but based on an original 1662 instrument in Colin Booth’s possession that was made by one Nicholas Celini, who seems to have been based in Narbonne in Southern France and was presumably of Italian extraction. Booth has recorded French and English music on the original instrument and now adds this German repertoire with this extended-compass copy. Although the two keyboards include a 4′ stop, Booth only uses the two 8′ stops, wither individually or, rarely, in combination. A sensible approach, that produces an impressive intimacy of sound. The harpsichord is beautifully resonant with a solid tone and a secure bass response. The recording acoustic allows an attractive bloom without compromising detail.

I liked Booth’s no-nonsense manner of releasing the plectra at the end of pieces with a nicely audible clunk, rather than the usually unsuccessful attempt to lift the fingers silently. There is also a sensible gap between each Prelude and Fugue, avoiding the risk of them all running into each other – a useful habit that not all recordings practice.

Although this is not really one of those very ‘safe’ recordings that you can listen to over and over again as there is nothing to upset the horses, it is most certainly not one of the mannered performances that are best reserved, if at all, for live performances rather than repeated listening. In this interpretation, there is a flexible approach to rhythm and the articulation of notes. This is a high-risk strategy as it runs the risk of making the musical line sound rather disjointed. The benefits are the imparting of a personal response to the sequence of little motifs that, in typical Baroque fashion, much of Bach’s music is made up of. Although there were one or two tracks where the playing veers rather close to the former, by and large, the slight flexibility and other personal interventions become an increasingly attractive feature of the playing. Whether by luck or good judgement, Colin Booth generally manages to steer a line between opposing performing styles, making this a recording that pays repeated listening.

If you think this playing style will disturb you, listen to the final track, the extraordinary extended B minor Fugue, the longest of the 12 Fugues, and matched by the longest of the Preludes. Here Booth almost, but not quite, adopts a French notes inégales manner of articulation, a performance aspect that, arguably, goes way beyond what is generally assumed to have been Bach’s manner of performance.

Although Bach lovers and harpsichordist will find plenty to think about in this recording and its accompanying text, casual listeners will also appreciate the music and the playing.