The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, BWV 846-69
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Having heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard play The Art of Fugue in this very hall a few years ago, I was, despite very mixed feelings concerning that performance, keen to hear this always interesting, ever-thoughtful artist in Book One of the pianist’s Old Testament. Again, my reactions were not uniform, but it would surely be a truly extraordinary performance – whether good or bad – in which they would be. A degree of the heavy-handedness I noted in 2008 manifested itself again, especially earlier on, and especially during the fugues, but it seemed to fade away, as did the state of affairs in which the earlier preludes tended in general to fare better than their companion fugues. Perhaps most importantly, there was a true sense, understated though it may have been, of progress, of a ‘journey’, to try to reclaim a word that has perhaps become clichéd beyond repair. Bach’s tonal cycle in the end amounted in performance to very much more than the sum of its parts, which parts I shall now attempt to summarise.
The C major Prelude was, intriguingly (a nod to its clavecinist roots?), slightly uneven: very different from the almost belligerent presentation of The Art of Fugue. There was a sense of expectancy in what was quite a slow account. Its fugue, by contrast, exhibited an unevenness that came across as a little unsteady; a little pedal would not necessarily have gone amiss here. The C minor Prelude came across in relatively ‘neutral’ fashion, which did not preclude a strong sense of harmonic motion. Aimard’s decidedly non legato approach to the C minor Fugue, however, wanted charm. Much more ingratiating was the C-sharp major Prelude, which also benefited from its prelude-predecessor’s sense of direction. Its companion fugue sounded ‘neutral’ in the positive way of apparently letting the music ‘speak for itself’, however much art may be required for such an impression to take hold. Moving to the tonic minor, there was struck a note of almost nostalgic sadness, harking park to the opening Prelude. There was a stronger sense than in earlier pieces of reimagining, not entirely unlike a more Teutonic Tombeau de Couperin. Rhetorical spreading of chords made their point without overstatement. After a short break to return to the dressing room to collect missing music, Aimard continued with a C-sharp minor Fugue of grave, though decidedly un-Romantic dignity. As often, though not always, in this recital, counterpoint rather than harmony proved the driving force. There was, however, an element of heavy-handedness towards the end, which somewhat marred the impressive earlier sentiment.
D major brought a brisk, lively Prelude and a rather unyielding Fugue, which nevertheless, so long as one could take its underlying anti-Romanticism, had a strong stylistic sense of the Baroque Overture. D minor encouraged greater warmth, or at least less chilliness. There was a sense in the Prelude of a Bach edging at times harmonically toward the slightly surprising destination of a Schubert Lied. (Or at least, so there was in my aural response!) Oddly, the Fugue seemed a little lacking in the direction which was generally a strong suit for the pianist. Again, the E-flat major Prelude was relatively ‘objective’ in its presentation. Likewise its fugue, albeit with more than a nod to its slightly awkward – in the sense of character, that is – angularity.
Moving to E-flat minor, Aimard confounded expectations. The Prelude unfolded in high-Romantic (or thereabouts) fashion: beautiful, profound, without a hint of self-regard; the Fugue continued in similar vein, with a stronger impression of ‘belonging’ to its Prelude than previous pairs had shown. The E major Prelude and Fugue, by contrast, were themselves nicely contrasted with each other. In the E minor Prelude, I could not help but think that greater legato would have assisted its progress. Aimard’s no-nonsense approach to its Fugue worked well, though, without shading into anonymity. Much the same – the no-nonsense bit – could fairly be said of the F major Prelude and Fugue. The F minor Prelude was taken surprisingly slowly – to its advantage, both in terms of the harmonic implications of Bach’s counterpoint, and yes, its pathos. Bach’s chromaticism in the F minor Fugue benefited in similar fashion: what a relief it was that it and he were given time to speak!
After the interval, Aimard offered a playful yet muscular F-sharp major Prelude: an individual, though not eccentric, reading. The Fugue was more variegated than many of its predecessors, setting a note in general for this second half. It was rock solid, without that in any sense implying dullness. Aimard’s combination of harmonic direction and dynamic variegation was near-ideal in the F-sharp minor Prelude, after which the Fugue was presented in stark, almost desolate fashion, with more than a hint of the Passion settings, not least in the driving force of the continuo-like bass line. The G major pieces scintillated, the G minor Prelude registering all the more thereafter as labyrinthine, suggestive of Berg, though without less to its temporality. Its fugue was forthright, but this was a forthrightness with light and shade. A brisk A-flat major Fugue permitted a sense of broadening out for its Fugue, whilst the G-sharp minor Prelude and Fugue displayed a very well-judged combination of forward direction and chiaroscuro. The Prelude in particular gave an impression of dialogue such as one might more readily find in the Keyboard Suites – though not, of course, only there.
A lively, alert A major Prelude, again with the requisite dynamism of development, led to a Fugue whose non legato style here registered as genuine, meaningful contrast, consonant with its character, rather than interpretative oddity. It almost flirted. I initially thought the A minor Prelude unyielding, and perhaps it was, but kinship with Mendelssohn was perhaps part of the payoff for that. The stark nature of Aimard’s performance of the A minor Fugue was less convincing, its clockwork style missing the piece’s beating heart. Was the B-flat major Prelude a little on the Czerny side? Perhaps, but there was no great harm in giving the fingers such a work-out; Bach’s genius still shone through. A very fast tempo for the Fugue, combined with sovereign technical command, had similar rewards, though something also seemed to be lost.
Swiftly though it may have been taken, however, there was no less of depth to the B-flat minor Prelude, that greater second-half chiaroscuro aiding its passage. The Fugue, by contrast, was quite unhurried, its majesty permitted to unfold without fuss. It was not the most Romantic performance, but it was not anti-Romantic either. Pianistic subtlety, devoid of narcissism, enabled a performance of great distinction. After that, the B major Prelude came as light(-er) relief, with fine but not fussy attention to detail and direction. Likewise its Fugue. The B minor Prelude was taken in decidedly anti-Romantic fashion, not entirely to its benefit, the repeat of the first section coming across as charmless and heavy of hand. As indeed did quite a bit of what followed, although the repeat of the second section was considerably more yielding. So was the B minor Fugue, Bach at his most Bergian, for all that Aimard kept the music moving on in relatively swift fashion – at least until a big ritardando at the close. The long silence of communion at the end told its own tale.