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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier / Schornsheim

Bach / Schornsheim
Release Date: 01/31/2012 
Label:  Capriccio Records   Catalog #: 7115  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Christine Schornsheim
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Well-Tempered Clavier (complete) Christine Schornsheim (hpd) CAPPRICIO 7115 (4CDs: 279:10)

German harpsichordist and pianist Christine Schornsheim has been making CDs for many years now; I’m mostly familiar with her collaborations with non-period performers such as tenor Peter Schreier and the German oboist and conductor Burkhardt Glaetzner. In fact, the only decidedly “period” CD of hers in my library is a Harmonia Mundi recording of Mozart four-hand music made a few Read more years ago with pianist Andreas Staier on a Stein Vis-à-vis piano/harpsichord. Based on this admittedly limited experience, I was not prepared for the excellence of this release, nor for the depth of her understanding of Bach.

Complete recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier have been coming fast and furious of late; one need only scan the 70-plus listings of Book I on ArkivMusic to see that the music has attracted harpsichordists and pianists of every stripe and persuasion. Since joining the staff of Fanfare , I’ve personally surveyed four versions, the most exceptional of which is undoubtedly Rebecca Pechefsky’s recording of Book 1 on Quill Classics, reviewed in Fanfare 34:3. The first hint that Schornsheim’s version might be a cut above the ordinary comes in her personal observations about the project, contained in the liner notes: “ The Well-Tempered Clavier has always had a healing effect on me. Whenever I felt bad, I sat down at the nearest keyboard and played fugues.” She goes on to say that despite being an immense challenge, recording the 48 plus 48 has cleansed her soul and given her inner peace. One could interpret this as mere advertising jargon, but I don’t think so. The sincerity of these statements is borne out entirely by the integrity and honesty of the playing on these CDs.

It may surprise you to learn that I don’t automatically subscribe to the early-music dictum that the WTC can be played only on the harpsichord. Like any instrument, the harpsichord has its pluses and minuses, and in the hands of a lesser artist, the harpsichord is ruthless in revealing weaknesses in phrasing and technique. (It’s also very easy to sound dull and mechanical on the harpsichord.) The modern piano, on the other hand, with its damper pedal and increased resonance, is less restricting for many artists, allowing for a freer interpretive approach—or so they think. The best artists, of course, can turn a handicap into advantage. Schornsheim capitalizes on the strengths of the harpsichord in ways that are often hard to verbalize, such as the almost imperceptible changes in articulation—which would be lost on the more resonant modern piano—that set one voice against another in a fugue, or the minute applications of rubato that make sense of the rhetoric of a prelude. It is a style of playing grounded in intense study of and appreciation for Bach’s music, but one that never sounds labored, forced, or unnatural. There is nary a misjudged tempo or instance of flagging inspiration here; throughout Books 1 and 2 the level of accomplishment is remarkably high. In the international arena of Bach performance, I predict that this release will enjoy immediate and widespread favor.

Another reason for the serious record collector to consider the acquisition of this set is the choice of instrument. It is the 1624 two-manual Ruckers (enlarged in France in the 18th century) housed in the Musée Unterlinden, Colmar. The instrument has been the subject of numerous recordings, most recently a Centaur CD of Couperin played by Lisa Goode Crawford ( Fanfare 35:4). It is simply one of the most magnificent-sounding French harpsichords in captivity, and it has never been recorded more intelligently and realistically than it is here. Highest recommendation.

FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen


In Bach's complete Well-Tempered Clavier (a co-production between Capriccio and Southwest German Radio 2), Christine Schornsheim's refined harpsichord mastery and cultivated musicianship yield listening rewards akin to her excellent 1996 Goldberg Variations. For starters, the present release is splendidly engineered. The sonics give an idea of how Schornsheim's 1624 vintage Ruckers cembalo might sound from a choice audience seat in a small, modestly resonant room. Furthermore, Schornsheim's performances address issues of style and ornamentation without yielding to the agogic arrhythmia that certain historically informed interpreters--or their overly literal, sewing machine-like antipodes--dote upon.

Her stresses, accents, and distensions are audible yet subtle, as in the Book 1 C major fugue's exposition, the Book 2 A-flat prelude, or the Book 2 G minor fugue's closely voiced, difficult to untangle linear strands. Her fast fingerwork never loses its center (the buoyant, winged Book 1 C-sharp major prelude), nor do certain thick registrations sound anything less than clear and shapely (the Book 2 C-sharp minor fugue).

Her sense of dramatic timing and cross-rhythmic interplay bring a fresh character to the Book 1 A major and Book 2 G-sharp minor fugues. Her registration for the Book 1 F-sharp major prelude and fugue is an octave higher than usually heard, which may be disconcerting to some listeners.

Only a few pedestrian selections--the Book 1 B minor, Book 1 A minor, and Book 2 B-flat minor fugues--fall below Schornsheim's generally high standard of inspiration. Collectors seeking an attractive supplement to our reference harpsichord Well-Tempered Clavier cycles will find much to admire here.

-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com

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Works on This Recording

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, BWV 870-893 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Christine Schornsheim (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1738-1742; Leipzig, Germany 
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846-869 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Christine Schornsheim (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1722; Cöthen, Germany 

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