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Bach: 12 Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier II review – wilfully immaculate

Andrew Clements
·2-min read

It’s four years since Piotr Anderszewski last released a solo piano album, of fantasies by Mozart and Schumann. Now for the first time, he has turned his attention to The Well-Tempered Clavier; while Bach has always featured prominently in his recital programmes, he has previously only recorded some of the partitas and English suites. Being Anderszewski, though, he has not opted for a dutiful progression through the 24 preludes and fugues from one of the two books into which Bach divided his monumental work, presented in the chromatic order in which they were published. To him that order is “not one in which the pieces follow each other with an emotional, musical inevitability”.

Instead, he’s made his own selection of just 12 preludes and fugues from the second book, and arranged them “in a sequence of my own subjective choosing, based sometimes on key relationships that work naturally with one another, at other times on contrasts which seem to draw the pieces irresistibly together. The idea of playing these works in this specific order is to create a sense of drama suggestive of a cycle: 12 characters conversing, mirroring each other.”

What we have therefore, is a Bachian equivalent to one of Schumann’s cycles of piano pieces, a baroque Carnaval or Kreisleriana, if you like. And while purists may recoil in horror at hearing this music presented in what might seem a disruptively wilful order, they ought to be convinced by the sheer intelligence and lucidity of the playing, its immaculate phrasing and minutely graduated range of tone.

Anderszewski does begin at the beginning of Book II, with the C major prelude and fugue, and also ends where Bach’s sequence ends, with the B minor. He preserves the original alternating sequence of major and minor too, but otherwise ranges widely across the 24 pairs of pieces, following the warmth of the C major fugue with a delicate, introspective account of the F minor prelude and a bracing one of its fugue, for instance, or preceding the drama of the G minor prelude with the tiny E flat fugue. Some may find a few of Anderszewski’s tempi on the slow side, but his approach generally pays dividends, as with the two longest fugues in his selection, the D sharp minor and the G sharp minor – the first spaciously grand, the second searchingly profound – which become the expressive foundations for the whole sequence.

It’s a joyous disc, constantly engaging and hugely rewarding; the only regret is that it’s so compelling, one wishes Anderszewski had recorded all of Book II, or better still the whole of the 48, in whatever order he chose.