Up to the point that I discovered Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the WTC in the early 2000s I had never been particularly drawn to Bach’s original keyboard music. I’d enjoyed enormously some of Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangements of famous cantata movements etc., but as for solo piano, I’d always preferred Beethoven or Chopin. All the Bach recordings and performances I’d heard seemed rather dry or self-indulgent – as I’m afraid to say Glenn Gould’s Bach still strikes me today.
I was sitting in my cosy lounge one evening after a long day of teaching, listening to my Barenboim CD by candlelight. I remember being very tired, almost dozing, when I was brought abruptly awake by the penultimate cadence of the great C sharp minor fugue. I could hardly believe what I’d heard. As if to make the remarkable dissonance shocking to 21st century ears (as it must have appeared to Bach’s contemporaries), Barenboim had added an extra octave in the bass and reiterated the most dissonant note (marked with a tie in the score). He also played the whole chord fortissimo, concluding the final bars with a very affecting diminuendo. I’d heard the piece several times before, but for the first time I was aware of it having a powerful structure, and the ending a striking inevitability.
There were many other instances where I found that, in Barenboim’s hands, Bach was speaking to me in a voice I could understand and appreciate. I found myself, by turn, moved, amused, shocked and astonished at the drama or profound beauty of this sublime music.
Now that I had been shown a way in which I could really appreciate Bach’s keyboard music, I found I was able to greatly enjoy masterful, and perhaps more authentic interpretations of the WTC by pianists like Andras Schiff, and Angela Hewitt. I also discovered a wonderful account on YouTube by the little-known Evelyne Crochet.
In the printed cycle of preludes and fugues, today’s B major prelude comes after the haunting B flat minor fugue. Heard in that context it is, for me, like seeing the clouds lifting after a period of dark and unsettled weather; simple and understated but expertly structured. The 4-voice fugue is also short but challenging to play. By contrast it is rather ebullient, announcing itself with assured self confidence.
Prelude and Fugue in B major: