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Bach: Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 / Craig Sheppard

Release Date: 11/27/2007 
Label:  Roméo Records   Catalog #: 7258   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Craig Sheppard
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Well Tempered Clavier , Book I Craig Sheppard (pn) ROMÉO 7258 (2 CDs: 118:56)

Adding to his growing discography of the keyboard works of J. S. Bach (see reviews of the Partitas in 30:1 and the two- and three-part inventions in 30:4) pianist Craig Sheppard has now committed to disc Book I of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier , the composer’s cyclical progression of preludes and fugues through the major and minor keys. Read more

As recently as a review of Ross W. Duffin’s book, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony, and Why You Should Care , in 30:3, the subjects of equal temperament and tempered tuning were still raising controversy and stirring debate, long after most of us considered the matter a done deal. Bach most certainly did not invent the concept—various methodologies were tried by others preceding him—nor was the “tempered” tuning adopted by Bach in his “WTC” the precise equivalent of what we live by today, which is the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones.

Slightly more interesting, and amusing, at least to me, is the fact that there are in theory more than 24 major and minor keys, and this is because of tempered tuning, not in spite of it. There are, on paper, at least, 30 major and minor keys, 15 of each rather than 12. Beginning with the keys containing five sharps and those containing five flats, each of them has a logical enharmonic equivalent. For example, the key of B Major with five sharps sounds exactly the same but can be written as the key of C? Major with seven flats. For his third Prelude and Fugue, Bach moves up a half-step from C to C? Major with seven sharps. But why not move up a half-step from C to D? Major with five flats? To the ear, on a modern piano, it would sound no different; it would just be written in a key with five flats—less daunting I should think to the eye than a key with seven sharps. What this seems to bear out is that the “tempered” tuning Bach was working with was indeed not quite the same system we know today, and that in fact C? Major and D? Major would not have been the same keys.

Sheppard is up against formidable competition here, ranging from Edwin Fischer (1933–1936), Rosalyn Tureck (1953), Glenn Gould (1962–1965), and Sviatoslav Richter (1970–1973, unfortunately in poor sound), to more recent versions with András Schiff (1984), Angela Hewitt (1997, just re-released at a special price), and Till Fellner (2002).

I’m not quite prepared to say that Sheppard eclipses any of the above-named artists, each of which can be appreciated for different reasons and on his or her own merits. But a comparison between Sheppard and Fellner, whose ECM release I reviewed in 27:6, is instructive. Of Fellner, I said his reading is “as well played an account as it is serious—serious in the sense of being rigorously intellectual, earnest, and honest. This is Bach with few frills and no fussiness. Embellishments are minimal and Bach’s magisterial counterpoint is revealed to us in its immaculate conception.”

I could use many of the same words to describe Craig Sheppard’s interpretation but with some essential substitutions. Here is how I would characterize Sheppard’s performance: as well played an account as it is fun—fun in the sense of being joyous and exuberant. This is Bach with few frills and no fussiness. Embellishments are minimal and Bach’s magisterial counterpoint is revealed to us in its immaculate conception; yet these abstract musical mobiles are set into motion with a naturalness and freedom that allows them to trip off the page with an incredible lightness of being. As with Fellner, Sheppard adopts sane tempos, but the results he achieves are closer, I believe, to the more easygoing conversational style of Hewitt. There is nothing in Sheppard’s approach that attempts to inflate these pieces beyond their intended purpose. So often in Bach-playing of the Romantic school a sense of exaggerated reverence robs the music of its playfulness and sheer delight in contrapuntal banter. As an antidote, too often the school of authentic period-instruments practices goes overboard in the other direction, giving us absurdly fast tempos, bizarre flights of ornamentation, preposterous speculative cadenzas, and ultimately performances that are no more historically supportable than are those emanating from the Romantic school.

Bach is plastic and adaptable, one of the reasons his keyboard music transfers so readily from harpsichord to piano. Sheppard is one of those artists, along with Schiff and Hewitt, who in his own way has found a happy and wholly satisfying middle ground. These recordings were made before live audiences on April 26–27, 2007, in Seattle’s Meany Theater. I would expect Sheppard’s next installment, Book II, to follow soon. Meanwhile, I can recommend this release enthusiastically and without reservation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846-869 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Craig Sheppard (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1722; Cöthen, Germany 

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