BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2 • Niklas Sivelöv (pn) • HVB 1501 (4 CDs: 246:32)
It is no trifling thing for a keyboard artist to perform and record the 48, both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in their entirety. There’s more to it than conquering the technical difficulties, which are formidable in themselves. A sense of awe must fill the soul of an artist as he or she stands before a musical Olympus. The commitment requires not just every fiber of physical strength and energy the artist is capable of marshaling, but a dedication to the belief that in the struggle and perseverance to reach the summit lies the triumph of the human spirit. The beginning of this review is its end: Niklas Sivelöv is such an artist. The rest is filler.
The genesis of Bach’s WTC is well inscribed in the annals of music history. In 1722, Bach completed compiling a collection of 24 pairs of preludes and fugues, and two by two they came, like the animals to Noah’s ark, the pairs ascending, half-step by half-step, until every major and minor key was accounted for and the circle was closed. That became Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. A full 20 years would pass before Bach boarded his Noah’s ark a second time to ply the same waters again in 1742. And from that second voyage he brought home Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. All in all, 24 pairs of preludes and fugues times two, for a total of 48.
There are some things we know about these two ventures and some things we don’t. We know that Bach didn’t compose all of the preludes and fugues at once, even knowing at the time he composed some of them that in a pinch they could be salvaged for a higher mission. It’s like that TV commercial in which a discarded plastic bottle is stepped on, kicked around, and run over, until an environmentally conscious soul picks it up and puts it in a recycle bin. And the next thing you know, the lonely, abused bottle is part of a new park bench at the seashore, cooing, “It’s where I always wanted to be.” The theory goes, if you’ve already written a prelude in D Major sometime in the past, and now you need a prelude in that key to go hand-in-hand with a fugue in D Major, well, just repurpose the extant prelude and make it part of the park bench. And that’s exactly what Bach did with a number of the preludes and fugues, several of which he recycled from the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach of 1720.
The next thing we know for a fact is that the Well-Tempered Clavier was, to no small degree, a science experiment. In Bach’s day—indeed even earlier—and throughout the remainder of 18th century and into the first decades of the 19th century, music theorists, mathematicians, composers, and performing musicians occupied themselves with the problem of keyboard tuning. This is a very complex subject, and not one I’m qualified to address in any depth.
In a nutshell, various methods for tuning keyboard instruments were in vogue at the time, none of which could accommodate playing a sequence of pieces in every key without stopping along the way to retune the instrument. Certain pitches would sound jarringly out of tune in one key or another, and enharmonic equivalence—i.e., the ability of a C♯ to function as a D♭, for example—which modulation from one key to another often depends on, would be difficult if not impossible. Enter the brilliant idea of “tempered tuning.” Adjust certain pitches on the keyboard from “true,” bending them slightly one way or another in relation to each other, and you might—just might—be able to practice your scales in every one of the 24 major and minor keys without having to retune your instrument or your ears.
As with all good ideas, there were copycats and takeoffs. By the time Bach got around to compiling his Well-Tempered Clavier, there wasn’t just one tempered tuning system to choose from; there were a number of them. And one of the things we don’t know with any certainty—though there’s much speculation—is which of those systems Bach chose for tuning his harpsichord in the belief that it was the one most likely to work for the chromatic progression through the keys he had in mind.
Something that is important to make clear here is that “well” temperament is not “equal” temperament, the modern tuning system we’ve lived with in an uneasy peace for the last 200 years. “Well” suggests “sort of,” “more or less,” or “approximate,” as in “Are you well?” “Yes, but I could be better.” Equal temperament, to steal an analogy, kills the healthy chicken to make soup for the sick one. It was a compromise that threw every pitch slightly out of tune in order to equalize the half-step intervals within the octave and across the keyboard. Mathematically, C♯ and D♭ are not the same pitches; there’s some almost imperceptible vibrational difference between them, something that players of non-keyboard instruments are aware of. But on the keyboard, they are the same; they share the same little piece of black real estate. Violinists who have been taught to bend C♯s up and D♭s down complain that they’re forced to play out of tune in order to be in tune with the piano. To them I say, “Vibrato, my friends. Like ketchup, it covers a multitude of culinary disasters.”
One other thing we don’t know, but that I’m going to take a stab at answering, is why Bach did it all over again 20 years later. My surmise is that in those 20 years tuning systems changed and improved, and Bach may have wanted to try out one of the newer “cures” on the market. Or, he may have just thought it was a good way for students to learn their major and minor scales in exercises that were somewhat more elaborate and more technically advanced than those in Book 1.
All of this is relevant with respect to Niklas Sivelöv’s approach to the 48, for quite possibly it’s unique. I put Disc 1 in the disc-playing machine and pressed Play, fully expecting to hear the familiar sounds of the C-Major Prelude from Book 1. I mean, where else would someone begin a traversal through the 48, if not at the beginning? But what was this? It wasn’t the familiar arpeggiated chord progression of the first prelude from Book 1 at all. It was the C-Major Prelude from Book 2. Did the record company make some grievous pressing mistake, placing Book 2 on the disc stamped Disc 1? Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with Sivelöv via email, and he was gracious enough to reply and assure me that there was no mistake. The idea of presenting the WTC to audiences in a different way was the result of many “live” performances he had given of the work before making this recording in 2013.
In effect, what Sivelöv does is to meld both books of the WTC into one, ignoring the 20-year interval that separates them. But he does so in a way—and this is important enough to punctuate with a stupendapoint **!**—he does not violate Bach’s progression of keys by ascending half-steps. So, for example, he begins with the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, from Book 2, BWV 870. This is followed by the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from Book 2, BWV 871. But now, the next two Prelude and Fugue couples in C♯ Major and C♯ Minor are from Book 1, BWV 848 and 849. Eventually, every prelude and fugue couple gets its turn, respecting Bach’s chromatic sequence, but sometimes the couple comes from Book 1 and sometimes from Book 2.
Also worth a stupendapoint **!** is the fact that at no time does Sivelöv decouple any of the paired preludes and fugues. We definitely get paired couples from Books 1 and 2 interleaved, but Sivelöv never goes so far as to give us, say, the Prelude in A Major from Book 1 paired with the Fugue in A Major from Book 2. The couples, as paired by Bach, remain intact. In his own words, Sivelöv has composited the WTC’s two books together in the way he has based on the musical character of the numbers and the contrasts that exist between them—as a way, he puts it, “to see them in a new and unexpected light.”
You can still follow along with the scores if you like; you just have to have both Books 1 and 2 open in front of you, and be ready to jump back and forth between them, following, for example, the Prelude and Fugue in E Major, BWV 854, from Book 1, and on the next tracks, the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 879, from Book 2.
Another important feature of Sivelöv’s recording of the WTC is that he has opted to tune his modern concert grand piano to an “unequal temperament” according to the principles of Thomas Gerhard. This is simply put forward in the accompanying booklet note without further explanation. It would have been helpful to learn something about Gerhard and his “unequal temperament,” though to be honest, my ear, which tends to be quite sensitive to even slight variances in pitch, does not detect anything I would characterize as sounding “out of tune” in Sivelöv’s traversal of the 48 preludes and fugues.
Having in the past extolled the virtues of piano versions of the WTC by Angela Hewitt, András Schiff, Craig Sheppard, Keith Jarrett, and of course, the iconic if idiosyncratic Glenn Gould, I have to say that rarely in these preludes and fugues have I heard playing as virtuous or as suffused with a feeling of such sublimity as Sivelöv’s. The tone Sivelöv draws from his instrument seems uncannily balanced in such a way as to set into relief and caress every voice of Bach’s counterpoint.
Like Gould, Sivelöv doesn’t simply play the music, he sings it to himself and to us, thankfully without Gould’s added vocalizations. There’s also a hard-to-describe rapt intimacy to Sivelöv’s playing—not that it lacks firmness of touch or dexterity of fingering—that seems eager to share with the listener heretofore untold secrets about these pieces. In the wanted places that are wanting for Bach’s own ornamentation, Sivelöv adds the mordants, trills, and decorative figurations that Bach would have added himself, but so intuitively and naturally—never overdone and always tastefully and in style—that you wouldn’t know they’re not from Bach’s own hand.
If you’re not keen on the idea of Sivelöv’s composited approach to the WTC, allow me to suggest a solution: Programming your disc player to play the tracks in Bach’s given order by Book won’t work because the numbers are spread over four discs, but you could “rip” the discs on your computer, and then burn the tracks to your own discs in the order you want. Whatever you do, however, please, please do not allow Sivelöv’s interleaving of the preludes and fugues from both Books to deter you from acquiring his WTC; it’s a musically enriching and spiritually ennobling experience. And that deserves a stupendapoint **!**. Jerry Dubins