The “48”

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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Anthony Newman, harpsichord

Columbia 2xLP M2 32500

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, known to many pianists as simply “the 48”, is the Little Black Dress of classical music: elemental, revolutionary, essential. Or the Citizen Kane. Or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the invention of cheese, fiber-optics, the Big Bang. Really, the “48” isn’t just an epic set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys (it’s that too). But it is also a foundational event in music and cultural history.

The “48” as Bach composed them in 2 sections (from the 1720s and 1740s, respectively) were meant for any keyboard instrument, except for the piano, which hadn’t made its way to Germany from Italy, where it had just been invented. On the surface these are ostensibly exercises for practicing chords, scales and arpeggios in equal temperament–dividing the keys into 12 semitones.

But of course, the “48” are so much more than that, and in the right hands become something transcendently epic. Edwin Fischer was the first to record the entirety of the Well-Tempered Clavier, between 1933 and 1936, and his rapturous approach (still possibly the finest performance) was followed by a harpsichord version by Wanda Landowska. Since then it’s been recorded over 150 times.

Interpretations are across the board. There’s the romantic (Barenboim, Hewitt, Schiff), the unembellished (Pollini), the mysterious (Nikolayeva), the historically appropriate (Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Helmut Walcha) and the wildly eccentric (Gould, Gould and Gould). This recording by Anthony Newman, the first of two on the harpsichord and one on the piano, falls somewhere between the latter categories. Newman has been attacked by musicologists for his speedy tempos and cavalier adornments. And the 3rd Prelude, in C-sharp minor, is an excellent example: insensibly fast and flourish-y, and that pretty much sets the pace for this 1973 double-LP from Columbia, with its very 70s cover photograph of the harpsichordist mid-meditation on some kind of Druid-looking aqua-duct or something.

His Bach also happens to be truly exciting, and by today’s standards not all that heterodox. Other performers might be focused on structure, others on clarity, while a third sort might be inclined to bring out the inner dynamism of Bach’s music. Somehow, Newman combines all of them. There’s an improvisatory flair to his playing that nonetheless stays faithful to the soul of Bach. Before the period instrument boom went viral in the 1980s, Anthony Newman was there already, with a vitality and an authenticity comparable to anyone’s.

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