Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Bücher I & II – Jarrett (ECM New Series 1362/63 & 1433/34)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Bücher I & II

Keith Jarrett piano (Buch I), harpsichord (Buch II)
Recorded February 1987 (Buch I), May 1990 (Buch II)
Engineers: Martin Wieland (Buch I) and Peter Laenger (Buch II)
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Keith Jarrett never ceases to astound me: not because of his chameleonic ability to shift between jazz and classical music, but by the sheer passion and commitment he brings to both. On these recordings of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Jarrett proves himself to be a more than consummate classical performer. That being said, I don’t think Jarrett is out to “prove” anything here. Neither does he seem interested in laying to rest—despite critiquing others’ approaches, particularly Glenn Gould’s, in his liner notes—the ongoing debate of authenticity regarding the interpretation of Bach (and if you ask me, perhaps not even Bach ever played Bach “authentically,” tailoring as he did his keys and tempi to the occasion). What Jarrett does seem interested in is taking his ego out of the equation as much as possible. And while one cannot, of course, completely disavow a performer’s presence, this presence can be intrusive and overblown all the same. For what it’s worth, Jarrett tows the line between restraint and levity, humbly approaching the music from below rather than attacking it from above. Essentially a series of preludes and fugues written for keyboard students and enthusiasts, The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of generally short pieces, each its own microcosm of energy and ideas. Jarrett opts for a no-frills approach, though he has made a bold decision in recording the first book on piano and the second on harpsichord. Nevertheless, whatever novelty there is of “Jarrett playing Bach” wears off quickly, allowing the listener to focus on the music rather than dissect the performance thereof. Quite simply, this is a singular talent playing music by a singular composer.

Book I opens with one of the most significant musical utterances of the Bach catalogue: the Prelude and Fugue in C major (Gould’s recording of which was deployed into space on the Voyager Golden Record). Jarrett plays these with a strong sense of forward motion that sets the tone for a beautifully articulated journey through every major and minor key of the chromatic scale. Jarrett excels in the faster movements, of which notable examples are the G major and B-flat major Preludes, as well as the Fugue in E minor. But he shows an equal aptitude for those quieter moments, able to switch from sprightly (Prelude and Fugue in F major) to ponderous (Prelude and Fugue in F minor) in one fell swoop. Other gems in the latter vein include the C-sharp major Prelude, to which Jarrett brings a flowing pace that is fast enough to excite while also allowing the notes to breathe; the languid C-sharp minor Fugue; the sensitively handled E-flat major Fugue; the E-flat minor Prelude with its dexterous simplicity and emotive ritard; and the intimate A-flat major Fugue. Throughout Book I, Jarrett revels in his love for rhythm and a relatively bare aesthetic. The sound quality is accordingly muted, the piano recorded as if it were a harpsichord. Jarrett takes time with his trills, and while some might disagree with his pedal choices, for the most part they add a welcome splash of color.

Book II ushers in an entirely different sound when the piano is abandoned for harpsichord. Jarrett’s choice to do so may seem arbitrary, but I like to think it was more deeply thought out. On the surface Book I is more elegiac and perhaps therefore amenable to a pianistic performance. Book II, however, offers more in the way of the grinding syncopations and dance-like diversions more often associated with the instrument for which it was written. Where the piano seems an expansive medium, the harpsichord is a supremely tactile one that arrests us with its plucked immediacy, and the relay from one to the other gives us the luxury of both worlds, as it were. From the dazzling C-sharp major Prelude to the lush F minor Fugue, Book II is replete with gorgeous moments. The C-sharp minor Fugue is another wonderfully syncopated affair with jarring half-turns and unexpected phrasing. The harpsichord holds its own here in a variety of moods, ranging from vivacious (Prelude in D minor) and stately (E-flat major and A minor Fugues) to perpetual (E minor and A major Fugues,; Prelude in G major) and resplendent (Fugue in G major), while the final B minor Fugue caps things off with a rousing flourish.

At every moment during the 4+ hours it takes to get through The Well-Tempered Clavier, Jarrett allows the music into his heart and releases it verbatim. He exercises little dominance over the score and follows it as closely as he can. Where some interpreters turn these purely didactic exercises into showpieces, Jarrett lets them stretch their limbs and remain comfortable where they are. Oddly enough, the fact that Jarrett had already been playing Bach for 22 years before recording Book I, and the harpsichord for nine before recording Book II, has done little to staunch the flood of insults thrown his way for even attempting such a feat. Yet I find much of the criticism leveled against him to be rather self-defeating. “He’s so pretentious,” people say, “trying to establish himself as a serious classical pianist when everyone knows he’s a jazz musician,” but then in the same breath call him out for not taking a more avant-garde approach to the canon. What these hypocrisies fail to acknowledge is the kindred spirit Jarrett brings to one of the most monumental works in Western art music. We do well to remember that Bach was also a master of improvisation and that his skills as such were at the heart of his comparably prolific output. I, for one, have heard many recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and would never resort to calling any of them bad, uninspired, or somehow incorrect, for what and where is the “original” interpretation to which they might be compared? Regardless of whether or not one cares for what Jarrett has done with Bach, his utter devotion to the music at hand reduces the debate to a simple matter of preference over quality. And so, when Jarrett proclaims that “This music doesn’t need my help,” I propose that we take him seriously. What this music does need is our help, which we can offer by setting aside our own pretensions and listening with open minds.

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