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Bach via Barenboim

January 21, 2007
New York, NY

Have you ever received a Christmas gift from someone that was so perfect, and so unexpected, that you just stood there with your mouth hanging open wondering how you were so lucky to even know this person, let alone be spending the rest of your life with her?

That's how I felt when Deirdre gave me two tickets each for two back-to-back concerts of Daniel Barenboim playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, at Carnegie Hall.

What we know today as Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier was finished in 1722. It consists of 24 preludes and fugues in all 12 major and minor keys. The first prelude and fugue is in C major, the second in C minor, the third in C# major, the fourth in C# minor, and so on. The precise purpose of this work is unknown. Certainly Bach liked to assemble challenging practice pieces for keyboard students. It is also believed that he was trying to demonstrate the utility of a tuning system for keyboard instruments that would accomodate all possible keys (hence the title). This tuning was almost definitely not equal temperment, which is the tuning inevitably used these days, but there's no conclusive proof what it was instead. (I've been reading Ross W. Duffin's How Equal Temperment Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) (W. W. Norton, 2007), which discusses these issues.)

Some two decades later, Bach repeated the feat by assembling another 24 preludes and fugues into a work we now know as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. It is well known that both Mozart and Beethoven studied The Well-Tempered Clavier, so it began to have an influence over the future of music in the 18th century, many years before the supposed "Bach Renaissance" of the 19th century.

Daniel Barenboim also studied The Well-Tempered Clavier as a child and piano student, but in interviews he says he gave up playing Bach in the 1960s because of the original-instrument movement, which insisted that Bach keyboard works be played only on a harpsichord. In my heavy Bach-listening days in the 1970s, the original-instrument movement was still quite persuasive, and I certainly preferred my Bach on a harpsichord with just one exception, and that was Glenn Gould.

But attitudes are much looser these days. Musicians feels as if they've learned a lot from the original-instrument movement and can now go back to playing Bach on the instrument of their choice, which is very often the piano. I'm not sure when Mr. Barenboim started playing The Well-Tempered Clavier in concert, but he recorded Book I in 2003 and Book II in 2005.

And The Well-Tempered Clavier is what Daniel Barenboim chose to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his New York debut, at Carnegie Hall on January 20th, 1957, when he was 14 years old. He played Book I yesterday evening and Book II this afternoon.

I had some minor quibbles with last night's performance. I found some of the preludes too fast and the fugues too slow and overly stately. Mr. Barenboim seemed most at ease with the fast intricate preludes and tended to rely on a little too much pedal otherwise. But I am no longer such a Bach purist that I would summarily reject an otherwise intelligent interpretation simply because it seemed a little too pianistic.

Although I certainly enjoyed last night's performance of Book I, I found today's performance of Book II to be totally enthralling. Everything seemed to click for me here. I think for most people (including me), Book II is less accessible and more demanding than Book I. The tempi aren't as varied, and the textures are often denser. Yet, Mr. Barenboim today seemed totally engaged with the music, and those of us who stuck it out over nearly three-and-a-half hours (including a half-hour intermission) were rewarded with a rich dramatic arc that Mr. Barenboim unveiled from the music.


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