How do you like your Bach? Performed on piano, harpsichord or some other keyboard instrument? I have a secret fondness for Ralph Kirkpatrick’s 1963 recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, played on a sweetly cranky clavichord. Not for listening to from beginning to end, perhaps, but that isn’t what the two books (each free-standing) are for.
What, exactly, they are for isn’t entirely clear. On the title-page of Book I, Bach suggested that it consisted of ‘preludes and fugues in all tones and semitones … for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study’. In other words, for players first and only incidentally for listeners.
In his note for this recording of Book II Christophe Rousset gives the performer’s perspective: for him, this is ‘Everest’. There are moments when the listener gets a sense of the effort, both physical and mental, that it requires, but generally Rousset’s playing is fluent, by turns musing and rhythmic, but never aggressively so. The harpsichord he plays is a 17th-century instrument kept in the chateau at Versailles. Photos show its rich decorations; its sound is no less sparkling. Rousset makes the most of it but I found myself longing for the elegance and zest that a pianist such as Angela Hewitt brings to this music.