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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das wohltemperierte Clavier - Book II, BWV 870b-893 (1739-42)
Sébastien Guillot (harpsichord)
rec. April-May 2009, Eglise de la Résurrection, Paris
SAPHIR PRODUCTIONS LVC 1136 [73:41 + 79:52]

Another recording of Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Clavier- Book II, but this time we have a new USP. This is apparently the first recording of the London autograph score, the ‘Londoner Originalhandschrift’ or ‘Fassung A’. “The original autograph manuscript having been lost, there remains one copy in the hand of J.S. Bach and his second wife, Anna Magdalena… [This version] includes - in relation to the 1744 version, the source that is now recognised as authoritative - numerous melodic, rhythmic and ornamental variants.” All of these variants in fact serve to illustrate that there is in fact no definitive version of DWC Book II. The 1744 copy is deemed authoritative by some as the student who worked on them was apparently being given Bach’s revisions of that period, but this is no reason to assume the older copy is no longer musically relevant. Like all of those versions of Bruckner’s symphonies or that tremendous unrevised score of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, it seems so improbable that it has taken until now for someone to record the Bach family’s first fair copy of such legendary music.
Going through each difference will bore everyone to tears, but you already get an idea from the first C major prelude, which is presented as unadorned 16th notes, rather than including those extra twiddly 18th notes which we all know and love from the third beat of the first bar and first beat of the second bar, and so on. You’ll find yourself becoming a twitcher despite yourself, wondering for instance if those inner voices in the C sharp major prelude are as different as you suspect. Indeed they are, and you also find yourself wondering why no-one has taken up this wonderful resource of alternative angles on what is already some of the most marvellous music written for the keyboard.
Sébastian Guillot’s instrument is recorded in a nice church acoustic, with a fairly close microphone placement catching all of the detail without gnawing at your ears with discomforting harshness of sound. He plays a 1993 reproduction of a Parisian instrument from 1733 by F. Blanchet, Italian builder O. Fadini creating a nice resonant tone with plenty of lively colour. The most recent harpsichord version of Bach’s complete Wohltemperierte Clavier I listened to was with Christine Schornsheim on the Capriccio label (see review), which has more upper partials in the recorded sound, though with different perspectives it’s tricky to tell if this is more to do with the instrument or the recording. Either way Guillot’s playing is very good throughout this Book II. He has an expressive ‘lift’ or rubato used to bring out expression in an instrument well known for its lack of dynamic capabilities, and this works well most of the time. He can occasionally ‘drift’ a little in tempo which is less appealing in something like the Prelude No. 5 in D major, where your metronome will have trouble deciding which way to go, or where the ends of each repeat section lose a little steam, to be picked up again at the recapitulation. This is a very minor point, and Guillot’s technical prowess is proven time and again with the most demanding of fugues. Every player has their own little quirks in Bach, and this is part of what keeps each new recording alive and interesting. I rarely found myself in argument with Guillot’s tempi, and moments where a questioning eyebrow might have been raised were soon overruled by performances of conviction and considerable power and expression.
Sébastian Guillot has already given us a highly respectable recording of J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue (see review), and in its own terms this recording of Das wohltemperierte ClavierBook II is truly excellent. The points of difference between this version and those to which you will have become most accustomed are rarely aspects of the music which leap out at you, and buyers can rest assured they are acquiring a DWC II which satisfies in every way each other good harpsichord version does, assuming you like harpsichord.
Like ‘needing’ the newest version of the iPad, what this release does provide is the perfect excuse for splashing out and discovering this incredible music all over again. Treat yourself to little surprises and big ones, like the extra coda at the end of Fuga X, BWV 879 or those funky rhythms of the Praeludium BWV 887. Go on - you know you want to …
Dominy Clements