J.S. Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2,

João Carlos Martins, piano

[Connoisseur Society CD 4241, 4242]

March 2006

I think the terms monumental and architectonic must be more frequently applied to the music of Bach than any other composer. In listening to his music I have always felt a unique sense of structural awe, quite distinct from the fecundity and beauty of harmony and melody. It is the music of a mind that in other circumstances might have designed cathedrals that in other times might have speculated on the cosmic and subatomic structure of the universe. It is music that ranges the gamut of human emotion but with the certainty and calmness of the divine. It is music typically so perfectly conceived and executed that the terms form and content seem almost beside the point. And, though there’s a lot of it—masses, cantatas, concertos, solo works for pipe organ, violin, violoncello, and keyboard—Das Wohltemperierte Klavier surely ranks among the very greatest of Bach’s creations. The two sets of The Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) were separated by over twenty years; the first set was written in 1720 when Bach was 35, the second set in 1740, ten years before his death. The WTC finally appeared some 50 years after that, marking the culmination of strenuous efforts by his sons and his pupils to get these masterpieces published.

Wohltemperierte Klavier is usually translated as “Well-Tempered Clavier” but historically there has been little agreement as to what this means. The music has traditionally been played on a harpsichord with multiple stops, though Ralph Kirkpatrick recorded Book 1 on the clavichord, a small, quiet, percussion instrument that uses metal hammers, but unlike the pianoforte has no escapement. But the term klavier (or clavier as it is sometimes spelled) actually refers to any keyboard instrument, though some pieces in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier are clearly more suited to the pipe organ. Perhaps the “purists” were bound to lose out where there is this much uncertainty, but in any case the most common instrument employed for recording the WTC today is the modern piano, as in this recording.

Equally controversial is the meaning of “well-tempered.” This has traditionally been thought to mean “equal-temperament.” It has also been thought to indicate not a system of equal intervals, as in modern tuning, but one composed of perfect and imperfect intervals, in which all major and minor keys would be available, but in which each key would have a distinct flavor. (This can be heard sometimes in recordings employing Baroque pipe organs that haven’t suffered the ravages of “modernization.”) The fact that Bach frequently transposed the keys of his compositions has suggested to some that Bach meant “equal-temperament,” but this is not conclusive. There were, incidentally, a number of composers before Bach who composed sets of music in all major and minor keys.

In his 1905 biography of Bach, Albert Schweitzer wrote that, “What so fascinates us in the work is not the form or the build of a piece, but the world view that is mirrored in it. It is not so much that we enjoy the Well-Tempered Clavichord [sic] as that we are edified by it. Joy, sorrow, tears, lamentation, laughter—to all these it gives voice, but in such a way that we are transported from the world of unrest to a world of peace, and see reality in a new way, as if we were sitting by a mountain lake and contemplating hills and woods and clouds in the tranquil and fathomless water.” This may be a highly romantic view of Bach’s music, but it is definitely a view I share over a century after it was voiced, with an exception. The “form and build” of this music is also fascinating, the seemingly limitless creativity in manipulating themes and integrating them in the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structure, and the staggering and unique intelligence that underlie that wondrous creativity.

And João Carlos Martins does this music justice. He is a pianist with a strong and original musical personality. He tends to play with vigor but is capable of the finest nuances of attack, tone and phrasing. Indeed, certain of his performances on this recording are sheer marvels. With a few however I was, frankly, having some difficulty. Now, I’ve always felt it’s my job to submit to the performance and see where it takes me. A performance, however, may not jibe with one’s (unconscious) expectations to an uncomfortable degree, and such a one requires time and an open mind. I’ve put in the time and I’ve done my best to ferret out my aesthetic prejudices, and a number of these “troublesome” performances, of which there were very few, bloomed in the process.

Martins has impeccable control over tone and loudness, and an exceptional and convincing flair for revealing the drama and passion of this music. When he plays quietly, his piano is palpably as if the volume control on the preamp has been turned down, retaining precise dynamic and tonal relationships. I realize this is what playing quietly is supposed to mean, but I’ve never heard anyone achieve quite this effect. Martins seems to have the uncanny ability to quieten his whole body in achieving this unusual (and difficult to describe) control. His playing has a singular balance of intelligence and emotion, offering enrichment and delight to both the mind and the heart. And there is a rightness to his tempi, which seem to be elicited from the soul of the music, rather than derived from, or in opposition to, any traditional or reactionary approach.

Of course, the modern piano opens up virtual worlds of tone color and drama, and these are the qualities that Martins exploits in his conception of this music. Consider his performance of the Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp from Book 1. Absent is much of the relentless contrapuntal drive, rather the parts are voiced toward a more emotional, and emotionally coherent, goal. All here is light and gentleness, the fugue wafting through the mind like a field of golden wheat in a summer breeze.

Or consider the Prelude and Fugue in B-minor from Book 1. This is one of the least exuberant and least colorful pieces in Book 1, and at the same time one of the most profound and serious. The fugue in particular is deeply felt and contemplative, as well as the longest composition in the set. Martins soars in this performance, sustaining the drama (and the listener’s rapt interest) for ten minutes and fifteen seconds.

The Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book 2 is a favorite of mine, relatively simple to play, but remarkably sophisticated, employing stretto and augmentation, and packing real drama in just a few bars. One can discern in Martins’ playing of this beauty his primary goal as a pianist: to make music. The overall emotional sense takes clear precedence over contrapuntal pyrotechnics.

This is indeed a splendid set of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and despite a few interpretations I still don’t get (Martins’ take on the ubiquitous C major prelude from Book 1, for example), it is a treasured addition to my library. It is one of the wonders of music that the same composition, in the hands of different pianists, can produce different, clearly valid interpretations.

Russell Lichter