April 26, 2007


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

      Here’s a real rarity: a Well-Tempered Clavier that you can listen to for the sheer enjoyment of it, not with the feeling of hearing an obligatory-to-listen-to great work or enduring an academic exercise. The Well-Tempered Clavier, in truth, is an academic exercise, but there are occasional performers who manage to make it more than that through skill of playing and, it seems, almost by willing a connection between the music and a modern audience. Wanda Landowska was, famously, one such. Canadian organist and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour is another.

      Most people think little of tuning, or musical temperament, these days. Attending an orchestral concert and hearing the musicians tune up beforehand is about as much exposure as most listeners have. The oboist, who has hopefully shaved his or her double reed to a perfect A of 440 Hz, sounds the tone, the other musicians match it and tune accordingly, and that is pretty much that. In Bach’s time, though, there were competing schools of temperament, some based on precise mathematics and some on the feeling or sound of the music an instrument tuned with them would emit. In some systems, particular keys simply sounded better; under certain systems, specific keys were virtually unusable – they would sound horribly “out of tune.” Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was designed to showcase the advantages of one particular system – well temperament – by demonstrating how fine-sounding preludes and fugues could be written in all major and minor keys on an instrument tuned in this manner. Students could learn these pieces while exploring the advantages of this type of tuning, which is pretty close to the one generally used today.

      The specific instrument for which Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier is not known. The work generally lies well on the harpsichord or clavichord, but some pieces – notably the fugues in A Minor and B-flat Major – seem to require a pedal harpsichord or organ. The solution found for Luc Beauséjour’s recording is an elegant one: his harpsichord was built in 1985 expressly to try to reproduce the sound that Bach was seeking in his works. It even includes the ability to set the tuning A to 392, 415 or 440 Hz.

      The prowess of the harpsichord designers will matter far less to listeners than Beauséjour’s technical abilities, which are considerable. He does more than play the music accurately – he plays it with an understanding of the various sounds of which a harpsichord is capable, and with a keen ear for matching those sounds to the character of particular preludes and fugues. Thus, he accentuates the recitative-like structure of the prelude in E-flat Minor, emphasizes the melodic nature of the one in F-sharp Major, and gives high dignity to the one in B-flat Minor. He follows that one with an equally dignified fugue in the same key, and in fact Beauséjour’s handling of all the fugues is exemplary – he makes the entries of three, four, even five voices crystal clear, fully exploring Bach’s contrapuntal genius while treating each fugue as a separate, self-contained entity rather than merely one in the series of 24.

      Especially at Naxos’ low price, it would be very hard to beat this performance. Hopefully Beauséjour, having mastered the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, will go on to record the later Book II as well.

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