Trevor Pinnock’s first encounter with Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier came in the late 1950s when he was about 12 years old. Now, aged 73, he’s finally taken the plunge and produced a glowingly beautiful new recording of Book 1 for Deutsche Grammophon. Has the long wait been worth it? Most definitely! Musically and technically, this is among the finest recordings of Bach’s WTC ever recorded.
Pinnock plays the music with imagination and sensitivity, yet without obvious point making. It’s a straight unfussy mature reading from someone who trusts the music and feels no need to ‘interpret’ it. His tempi seem just right; OK, so maybe the prelude to BWV 866 is perhaps a shade fast, and the prelude to BWV 867 possibly a tad slow. The latter is wonderfully expressive, but just a tiny bit self-aware. However, these were the only times I sensed Pinnock self-consciously interpreting the music.
The WTC is a long and winding musical journey – nay, a pilgrimage. Trevor Pinnock guides you every step of the way, and offers a consistent narrative. The whole performance feels like its cut from the same cloth. He plays with a relaxed precision, and no sense of rigidity. Under his fingers, the music unfolds effortlessly, smoothly, evenly, inevitably - without seeming faceless, or lacking in concentration or insights.
To be honest, I prefer Bach played on the piano. I like the sound of the piano, whereas harpsichords can be a bit harsh. For this recording, Pinnock plays a copy of an 18th century instrument by Henri Hemsch. Tuned to a low pitch, it produces a gorgeously warm refined sound. The instrument has crisp yet mellow tonality, and sounds limpid and clean – much less jangly than usual. Because of its fast transient attack and plethora of overtones, the harpsichord is a challenging instrument to record and reproduce. DG has captured a very beautiful sound that is both realistic and easy on the ear. Technically, it’s probably the best harpsichord recording I’ve ever heard.
As a result, I found it easy to listen to the whole WTC in a single sitting - simply because the sound is gorgeous, and the playing so involving and inviting. As the complete work lasts about two hours, that’s quite a compliment; there aren’t many harpsichord recitals one can listen to for that long! Inevitably, such excellence makes one long to hear Trevor Pinnock play the WTC Book 2. My only concern is time; I worry Mr Pinnock may need another 50 years before he feels ready for the challenge. Still, I feel sure the delay will be worth it...