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 Recording of the Week  Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Book One of JS Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier

Being a bit of an early music aficionado, I'm of the perhaps contentious opinion that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier represents the absolute pinnacle of keyboard writing. In sheer virtuosity, of course, it doesn't come close to the dizzy heights of Liszt, Alkan, Sorabji et al, and there's nobody like Rachmaninov to conjure up a swelling tide of emotion – but there's something hugely satisfying about the complete set, neither more nor fewer pieces than needed. It gives the sense of a master craftsman summing up everything about his art in one supreme offering that left everyone else struggling to find anything new to say – and it's for this reason, I think, that these two sets of preludes and fugues are rightly considered an acid test for any pianist or keyboard player.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Since the "authentic" movement got underway, it's been interesting to see which artists stick defiantly to the piano for performing Bach – Angela Hewitt notably tending to do so – and which take the more "period" route and use the harpsichord (as for example Masaaki Suzuki). At the risk of tarnishing my early-music credentials I must admit that there's a lot to be said for some piano versions, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard's intelligent, tasteful account of Book One has certainly done a lot to convince me further. Gone are the self-indulgently Romantic airs of, say, Glenn Gould – an unquestionably brilliant interpreter but hardly a "period" one by any means! It's an austere, almost self-effacing performance in which Aimard is ensuring that Bach is the real star. It's also relatively low on overt emotion and rubato – though by no means mechanical or dead, as some easing into cadences (particularly in the D flat major fugue and the C sharp minor prelude) shows. Although the instrument is one of course Bach would never have seen, one gets the impression that this is still Bach played like Bach, so to speak – and that the great master wouldn't object to the innovation if he heard Aimard's playing.

While in general there are no dynamic histrionics – the range is quite restrained and rarely strays beyond the realms of mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte – some of Aimard's dynamic choices caught me by surprise. In some of the fugues – the C major and the glorious five-part C sharp minor in particular – he has a tendency to open into a louder, almost muscular style for the coda; it's also noticeable throughout that his articulation leans very much towards the detached. Curiously enough, this latter approach somehow seems to offset the fact that he is playing them on a piano; I don't know whether he's consciously trying to imitate the sound of a harpsichord (I suspect not) or merely likes his fugal subjects and themes to be perfectly and unambiguously clear, but it works surprisingly well, even if it leaves some sections (the middle, Palestrina-esque passage of the E flat major prelude, for example) less mellifluous than I'm used to.

Everyone has their own opinion on where the "sweet spot" lies on the spectrum between period authenticity and the advantages of modern technology. I'd venture to suggest, though, that Pierre-Laurent Aimard has found that sweet spot for Bach's keyboard works – he manages to capture on the piano the spirit of a work designed to showcase the harpsichord. If you think you don't like Bach on the piano, I think Aimard may just convert you – and if you don't have a recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier yet then I can heartily recommend this one as a starting-point for getting to know these beautiful miniatures better.

… and if you like the sound of that, we've got even more well-tempered treats:

  • We discovered that Pierre-Laurent prefers to play from Bärenreiter's authoritative Neue Bach-Ausgabe edition - so if you'd like to have a go yourself, we're currently offering 10% off selected Bärenreiter Bach sheet music for keyboard. Click here for more information...
  • Plus - the launch of our Studio Quality (HD) downloads, including this very album – so you can get even closer to the sound of the recording studio! See the article below for more on this exciting new development.

Bach, J S: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) (Download not available in all countries)

Available Format: 2 CDs