Take another look


Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3413

It isn’t something you come across every day, Bach’s keyboard monument played in order of key where the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier are melded pretty directly so that both C Major preludes and fugues come after each other, then the C minor couples are juxtaposed, and so on.  The whole exercise stays in order except for two inversions where, at the half-way and end points of the four discs, Holtham reverses the order so that the F minor and B minor pairs from Book 2 are played before their Book 1 counterparts for reasons that have a fair bit to do with music and shape, even more with accomplishment and aesthetic finish.

This remarkable endeavour is intriguing for long stretches in its juxtapositions and has the welcome added attraction of fully engaging the careful listener –  by which I mean someone who is benignly disposed to the mighty 48 compendium and who finds riches in even the most well-known pages.  I don’t think the recording company and artist have their eyes set on a purely musicological audience, or one that is predominantly student-centric, although Holtham is one of the country’s most distinguished piano pedagogues.  No, it seems that their focus is firmly set on the exercise itself, which is to give pointed indications of Bach’s stylistic growth in the years between the two volumes that make up the W-TC and, from that maturity, to provoke a differentiation in the listener’s perceptions and responses: a conglomerate of what you get out of each set.

Holtham performs without histrionics, working with reliable firmness through his imposing task with very few moments where you might have preferred him to have a second take at something.  The CDs have no suggestion of over-splicing or a massaging of the prevailing dynamics or resonance.  As a result, the recordings appeal for their sincerity, a kind of plain-speaking which avoids the temptation to parade virtuosity even in the limited range of the two books; limited in physical compass, but a world of intellectual or emotional breadth.  You won’t find the interest-at-all-costs approach of bigger names who have recorded the work (and, once you start looking, it’s surprising how many virtuosi have done so).

The approach throughout is determined, task-focused more than startling or surprising in delivery, concerned with the music’s negotiation and allowing it to speak for itself without excessive ornamentation or using the distracting drug of injecting fake drama by abrupt changes of attack, dynamic or pace.  But then, the performer’s intention is not to highlight technical skill: that ability is taken as a given.

If you’re something of a sceptic about extra-musical associations, you are occasionally brought up very short by this exercise.  To begin, Holtham and his notes-collaborator, David Tieri, propose in the extensive discs-accompanying booklet, that the C Major tonality ‘offers a concept . . . as purity and infinity’.   This sort of synaesthetic idealization is one of the currents that we are encouraged to draw from the performances.  In a way, it adds a philosophical layer to what you’re hearing.  When we reach D Major, reference is made to Monteverdi’s Toccata that opens his opera Orfeo and which is written in that key; here, it is proposed that the earlier composer’s flourish shares a relationship with Book 2’s prelude in their shared trumpet sounds.  You may hear the similarities but I’m afraid that they pass me by.

Further along the tonal track comes a statement that is simply hard to fathom: ‘this fugue brings us back to the core of E as the solid concept of tonal firmament’.   Foes this refer to the round trip of this particular piece – the E Major from Book 2 – coming to rest on concrete tonal ground?  Or does ‘tonal firmament’ have a grander aim, where this particular tonality moves into the empyrean and is set above the rest?  When we get to G major, the writers speak of an ‘open-hearted tonality’; but that adjective can apply to many other constituents in the 48.  Later, A flat Major ‘remains a warm sunny key’; a summation that may be true in this instance, but is it a transferable descriptor?  I’m not at all sure about that.   A Major becomes ‘Bach’s display key’., but even a simple observation like this leaves you worried – what is being displayed, and is the display reserved for the Well-Tempered Clavier or is it meant to apply to more A Major Bach scores?

To be fair, these excerpts are far from common and the extensive written commentary is very valuable when it gets down to the formal character and emotional language of individual pieces, all of which receive commentary – some more than others, but that’s only to be expected.  By and large, Holtham’s interpretations mirror the printed attributes; well, what would you expect in discussing the various formats employed throughout in the 48 preludes?  Yet, quite often you are given a novel insight, especially about well-known material, which makes you stop the disc and look for yourself how a subject or episode is worked through, or why what has always seemed a simple slog is actually a carefully fabricated three-part invention.

In the end, this CD set succeeds in setting up bracing contrasts and similarities between the two books, even though the outcome is not always to the benefit of the later volume.  If you’re expecting extreme contrasts between works, you’ll be satisfied but not as often as you might think; indeed, there’s a fair amount of cross-pollination in play throughout the first three discs.

But the last one where Holtham performs the B Major and B minor pairs is a remarkable revelation.  How many of these 8 pieces do most of us know?  In my case, the Book 2 B minor Prelude was the only composition of any familiarity and that simply because of its place on an exam list of many years ago.

The remaining seven tracks comprise unexplored territory, and not just for me, I’d wager. I doubt that I’ve heard the B Major works live  – except when Angela Hewitt gave a recital of one of the books in Melba Hall under the Impresaria management many years ago.  Yes, many a pianist will have sight-read these pieces just to get a feel for the counterpoint and keyboard style, but a deep study? Forget it.

Holtham finishes his undertaking with a compelling reading of the B minor Fugue from Book 1, masterful in its direct forward motion and the restrained handling of those three sequence-rich interludes that move this score up to a rarefied level of achievement.  It puts a capstone to this unusual enterprise which gives a novel aspect to a humane masterpiece by Western music’s chief glory.

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