Piotr Anderszewski has recorded Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, sort of. I’ll explain in a moment. Anderszewski is the Polish pianist born in 1969: brilliant, versatile, and individualistic.
Book I is better known than Book II, I think. Book I—in whole or in part—is played more often in the recital hall. It is also the more recorded. It is also the more studied, by kids (and others) all over the world. These are my impressions, anyway. I cannot give you statistics.
For a long time, I knew every note of Book I and not very much of Book II. I assumed that Book I was superior. Boy, was that wrong.
Each of the forty-eight pieces is practically priceless. You will recall the structure of The Well-Tempered Clavier: each book consists of twenty-four pairings of preludes and fugues, in each key—the twelve major keys and the twelve minor keys. You would not want to do without any of these forty-eight.
For Warner Classics, Anderszewski has recorded twelve pairings—i.e., half of them—from Book II. Why? Why not the full monty? I don’t know. I suspect this was a business decision rather than an artistic one. In any event, Anderszewski has ordered his twelve pairings to provide contrasts in key, tempo, character, etc.
And yet he begins at the beginning—with the C-major prelude and fugue—which is wise. It is impossible to imagine starting Book II—even an abbreviated version—except with the C-major. Same with Book I. Furthermore, does either book have a better pairing than its C-major? No, it does not. They are pinnacles (though joined at the pinnacle by myriad others).
Also, Anderszewski ends with Bach’s final pairing, i.e., the B-minor. This, too, is wise.
Now it is time for me to critique Anderszewski’s playing. I could certainly do so, piece by piece. But I will be very brief. There’s more than one way to skin the cat of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Blunter, more detached—more staccato-like. Smoother, more lyrical. Slower, faster. On and on. Our tastes change over the years, and they change day by day, too. Probably a pianist or harpsichordist would never play these pieces the same way twice.
Years ago, a renowned pianist suggested I listen to Well-Tempered recordings by Samuil Feinberg, the Russian pianist who lived from 1890 to 1962. At first, I found Feinberg’s playing too creamy, too Romantic. Then I fell in love with it and could listen to nothing else. I will never fall out of love, not with Feinberg.
I have gone on an Ashkenazy jag, when it comes to Book II. (Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Russian born in 1937.) I have gone on a Gieseking jag (Walter Gieseking, the German who lived from 1895 to 1956). Many pianists have wanted to make a mark in The Well-Tempered Clavier, and have.
Piotr Anderszewski is balanced and intelligent. He pedals shrewdly. He is pianistic, not trying to imitate “period practice.” Yet he plays within beautiful confines. In some instances, he is almost neutral. He plays his Bach in nearly an objective way. In other instances, you can hear subjective feeling.
May I say, too, that when you listen to The Well-Tempered Clavier, you tend to stop listening to the performer, instead hearing only Bach?
One of the greatest things Beethoven’s teacher in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, ever did for the boy was give him The Well-Tempered Clavier. He said, This is your Bible. Study it, and you will know music. Beethoven did. You can hear The Well-Tempered Clavier in everything he wrote, certainly the piano music—especially the thirty-two sonatas.
Are the preludes and fugues of the WTC holy or secular? It depends on the piece, right? But even this changes. Some pieces you regarded as secular, you come to hear as more holy. And vice versa, surely. Custom cannot stale these little numbers, in their infinite variety.
Writing about Chopin’s Preludes, I always quote Henry Finck, an American music critic (1854–1926): “If all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes.”
Excellent choice. But if The Well-Tempered Clavier can be classified as “piano music”—rescue it, too, please.