BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Preludes & Fugues, 1-12, BWV 846-857 – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 176, 54:01 (12/15/14) *****:
Mordecai Shehori focuses (rec. March 2014) his critical scholar’s eye and deft fingers on the “Bible” of the Western keyboard canon, Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues that comprise the Well-Tempered Clavier. More specifically, Shehori consults the arch-Romantic annotator of the Bach text, Frederic Chopin, who in 1838-1839 devoted himself to amending errors in the Paris edition so that Bach’s essentially vocal music practice would once and for all dominate the keyboard legacy he conceived. Mlle. Chazaren, a respected student of Chopin, maintained that master’s annotations intact, and her own abilities gained credence to the extent that Franz Liszt entrusted his daughter Cosima’s musical instruction to Charazen. Shehori provides the modus operandi of his approach, certainly among the most fluid of readings:
“These performances of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier were inspired and guided by Frédéric Chopin’s hand-written annotations in a teaching score which belonged to his student Pauline Chazaren, as well as by a study of numerous editions and the autograph’s facsimile. My main concept of Bach’s music considers his work within the larger view of the arts, architecture, literature, and religious philosophies of his time. Preparations involve a thorough study of not only the many types of musical instruments that were available to him, but more importantly, his documented relentless pursuit to improve those instruments in areas of tone color, volume, sustain, the ability to overlap tones, and added richness in overtones. It seems that Bach’s pursuits were aimed at realizing an ability to produce a singing line on a keyboard instrument.”
Shehori realizes that of the 80,000 notes comprising the 48 Preludes and Fugues of the WTC, only some 50 bear a staccato indication, and none addresses a note in the first twenty-four, at least in the Chopin edition. The result becomes disarmingly revolutionary in terms of the huge legacy that has insisted on a dry, non-legato, un-pedaled approach. At several points in his discursive essay that accompanies the disc, Shehori – without overtly pointing an accusing finger at Glenn Gould and his pointillistic ilk – laments the tradition that has removed the humanity from Bach’s colors in order to render a “purely” instrumental affect, particularly a misbegotten version of a harpsichord sonority. Shehori obeys Bach’s indications to hold long notes in suspension over a number of measures and then allowing the notes to form individual voices, a kind of instrumental motet-style. The legato style of performance demands much in terms of digital and metrical acumen, but the result frees Bach of an arid, disembodied tonal palette that can only sympathize with a mechanical notion of Baroque music-practice.
Happily, the journey through these first twelve Preludes and Fugues never mirrors anything like a pedantic or “scholastic” realization of Bach’s score. The D Minor Prelude and Fugue and the E-flat Minor diptych, too, resonate with the mysteries of emergent voices and leading tones. The bass lines, clear and resolute, remain both intimate and sonorous in the manner of the organ chorale-preludes. If Elly Ney’s C Major Prelude provides an archetype of slowly swelling piano vocalism, Shehori’s C Major Prelude flows like a musical pun of the name “Bach,” a brook. The tempos, too, avoid a rigor or mechanistic lack of personality; a fine example lies in the E Major Prelude, which enjoys the stately countenance of a French gavotte with fluid passing, grace notes. A rich harmonic brew evolves in the ensuing fugue, a refreshed sense of polyphony that “indulges” in digital nuance. We could savor the inflection of accent and timbre as early as the toccata-like C Minor Prelude, rife with possibilities that find fruition in the famed Chromatic Fantasy.
Unless I badly misconstrue Shehori’s intent, the final triptych of E Minor, F Major, and F Minor achieve a kind of musical analogy to Chopin’s own Op. 28 in its late group, which attempt to provide sumptuous color in place of merely aggressive bravura, even when they explore the de profundis anguish of the spirit. The gliding, even exalted moments of inner turmoil that pass through the final pair in fateful F Minor capture a resignation – here within a mournful dance – that we might extract when we gaze into Leonardo’s last self-portrait.