BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. 2 = Christophe Rousset – Aparté (2 CDs)

BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. 2 = Christophe Rousset – Aparté AP070 (2 CDs in slipcase), 76:00, 81:05 [1/14/14] [Distr. By Harmonia mundi] *****:

Over the course of his career, Christophe Rousset has consistently excelled in the range and integrity of his explorations, first as a harpsichordist and then as director of Les Talens Lyriques (check out his splendid new recording of Lully’s Phaëton for Harmonia Mundi).

Now firmly established on the Aparté label after having been a Decca mainstay for many years (my fondest memory is of a Marin Marais recital he did with gambist Christophe Coin), Rousset moves into the big leagues with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book Two.

Written 20 years after the more well-known first book, and “stretching the limits of the possible,” as Rousset writes in his booklet note, WTC 2 is never really jolly music, and in fact listening to performances as introspective as these are a reminder of not only how much there is in its musical depths but also a kind of wonder at how transcendentally Bach was able to comprehend and convey so much with such ordinary means. Unless you are a skilled score reader, parsing the bare notes themselves yield up little of their secrets.

Playing on a 1628 Ruckers harpsichord, which has been preserved in the Chateau de Versailles since 1946, Rousset links Bach’s ordinary lines in the score to the sublime heights of what still demands being called an Everest of its time. Rousset is a master of the diversity of pan-European styles which Bach calls forth and which Rousset applies with just the right the miraculous touch needed to create the expressive humanity Bach had in his heart while all this structural superstructure was getting built in his head.

In the interstices of the preludes and fugues, for example, Bach is taking obvious joy mixed with humility at being able to command such obviously godlike forces of music; at some level Bach must have realized he was a Prospero himself. And like it was for Shakespeare’s iconic alter ego, it would have been a deeply sobering thought to Bach.

It is of course that every composer, right down to the garage band around the corner, hears vastly more and deeper than the notes they write on the score. The depths which lie under Bach’s notes are, perhaps because of their self-conscious rigor and formality, prevent us from having an actual convincing idea of what he expected to hear, despite the highly sophisticated, ultra- knowledgeable state of our expertise.

But performances like these, which are often very touching and grand (and foursquare at times too, as if plotting time) do convince us Bach was speaking profoundly to our musical souls. The miraculously-alive recording, made in the wonderfully incongruous chambers of the Dauphin at Versailles, adds a vibrant elegance that might well have delighted the composer if he would had allowed himself the pleasure. [French harpsichord (which experts agree sound the best), French harpsichordist, Versailles venue, and French record label, so why would it be incongruous that it happens to be German music?…Ed.]

—Laurence Vittes

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