BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk. 2: Preludes and Fugues, 1-12 – Mordecai Shehori, p. – Cembal d’amour

BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2: Preludes and Fugues, 1-12 – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour 178, 67:41 (4/15/15) [www.cembaldamour.com] ****: 

It will become increasingly obvious over time that Mordecai Shehori’s latest survey of the WTC (rec. 2014), which now embraces the first twelve preludes and fugues of Book II, intends to establish a thoroughly bel canto ethos upon Bach’s lyrical approach to learned polyphony. Shehori addresses the increased complexity of the Book II of WTC again in the context of Frederic Chopin’s annotated teaching edition, itself a guide to the application of cercar de la nota, portamento, voce chiara, voce scura, messe di voce, and sotto voce touches and dynamics in order to achieve a consistent, singing (and legato) line in Bach. Shehori claims that the Bach WTC projects the individual preludes and fugues in the manner of a “huge, arch structure. . .each entry presenting new [harmonic] aspects and new [technical] challenges.”

The essential idea – the preservation of beauty of tone – dominates the survey, even as Bach revels is his “fearful symmetries,” such as themes produced in mirror images or layered themes in voluptuous stretti. The quick appoggiaturas and accented entries ring with brisk authority, and Shehori makes a point of varying the repeats, either in articulation, ornament, or dynamic. The Fugue in C Minor provides a fine example of measured counterpoint having gained a “romantic” sensibility through applied bel canto voicings, like the use of cercar de la nota for repeated notes, breathing prior to the first note and placing the second note diminuendo. Thus, many of the preludes acquire the dexterous sonority of inventions, such as the Prelude in C-sharp Major and its accompanying Fugue. The parallel, expansive Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor bears a special meaning – in voce scuro – for Shehori, who learned to voice the concluding F-sharp to the diminuendo E-sharp from his mentor Mindru Katz.  The breezy swagger of the canonic D Major Prelude (in voce chiara) soon assumes the dimensions of a lightly brilliant toccata. Its subsequent Fugue in D, BWV 874 adumbrates the Beethoven Fifth motif, although many of the passing dissonances look well beyond in Twentieth Century harmony.

Fleet fingers realize the compelling Prelude in D Minor, with its inflected rhythmic propulsions. The E-flat Major Prelude well suggests a contrapuntal allemande, almost a premonition of Mozart. The florid bass canon soon compels more of our attention than the luxurious upper voice. The E-flat Major Fugue bears a hint of the militant or doxological spirit, in the manner of a contrapuntal chorale-prelude. The notion of “choral” articulation pervades the Fugue in E Major, BWV 878. No less ornamentally fluid, the D-sharp Minor Prelude offers a refined lament in expansive color combinations, the metric design subtle and varied.  The challenge of elaborate trill technique defines the E Minor Prelude, obviously a study for the clean and balanced articulation Chopin himself demands. The careful coloration of minute tonal and harmonic movement in the subsequent Fugue in E Minor certainly compresses much of the more “blatant” aspects of “virtuoso” writing into a denser space. As an emotional relief, the Prelude in F Major, BWV 880 proffers a bucolic affect, optimistically restrained. The ensuing Fugue in F Major benefits from Shehori’s breathed spaces and voice separation, which maintains the dance character of the otherwise resigned figures. Shehori leaves us with the diptych in F Minor, whose kinship with organ sonority becomes immediately apparent. Both dancing and floating impulses compete and merge in glorious synchronicity.

It has been a solemn but inspiring journey into a master’s alchemy, invented even as he proceeded into new musical realms as defined by the keyboard instruments of his own time.

—Gary Lemco

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