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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Das wohltemperierte Klavier, BWV 846-893

John Butt, harpsichord
Linn Records CKD463 4CDs 3:33
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John Butt was born in 1960. An undergraduate at Cambridge from 1979 – and organ scholar at King's College until 1982, his organ teachers included Peter Hurford and Gillian Weir. He was awarded his PhD (at Cambridge) in 1987. Butt's first teaching post was at the University of Aberdeen, though he also kept Cambridge connections… Fellow of Magdalene College, for instance. In 1989, he became University Organist and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. Back in Cambridge by 1997, John Butt was Director of Studies for Music at King's College, and Fellow of King's. He founded King's Voices in the same year in order that the women of the College could participate in its vocal music.

Four years later Butt was appointed Head of Glasgow University Music Department, and the Gardiner Chair of Music there. Since 2003 he has conducted the Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort, of which he has been officially Music Director since 2012. Butt's work includes both the choral and instrumental repertoire: he has appeared with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Irish Baroque Orchestra, Royal Scottish Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as well as orchestras at the Berkeley Early Music Festival and Göttingen International Handel Festival. Indeed his recordings for Linn of the major Bach choral works (the "B Minor Mass" on Linn CKD354, the "John Passion" on Linn CKD419, for example) have been received with acclaim. Like the best musicians who perform – and love – the Baroque, Butt is also an respected academic with many significant and illuminating publications to his credit.

Here on four elegantly-recorded CDs from Linn (Butt's first solo release for that label) is the equally monumental "Well-tempered Clavier", BWV 846-893. A collection of solo keyboard preludes and fugues in all 48 major and minor keys dated 1722, then 1742. Ostensibly composed "for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study", it became – and remains – one of the greatest and most influential works in the canon.

Butt's performance is magisterial. Along with his obvious, yet tempered, inspiration, he has a quiet and sure ability to bring to the music insights that make his performance worth attending to (tempi, phrasing, a real sense of nuance and subtlety in the tonal and melodic developments). But perhaps the greatest strength in Butt's playing is the one attribute which all great interpretations of this labyrinthine masterpiece must have: a sense of the architecture of Bach's conception. "The 48" must not be a collection of (disconnected – or, almost as bad, clumsily or forcibly linked) examples of something. Although we are taken, of course, on a monumental journey through all keys, that ought only to be the beginning. The music has to have internal and visible purposes other than expositional ones. Each prelude and fugue has to be a delight, a stimulus, a challenge, even. And each has to mean something when compared with those near it, and throughout the progression of the whole work. Resonances with other preludes and fugues not adjacent have to be brought out. Yet without sounding didactic. Butt achieves this not only by being aware of the journey that he's expecting us to follow with him. But – significantly – by immersing himself completely in the particularities of any one piece while he's working in and with it. And clearly enjoying it so much.

This touch is light; gentle; respectful. Listen to the tenderness of the F Sharp quartet (BWV 858, 859 [CD.2 tr.s 1-4]), for instance. Nothing brash, pushy or demonstrative. Yet there is as much definition as there is clarity. Butt plays from a position of extreme familiarity. Yet has something of the love for the work that the likes of Rosalyn Tureck had in her playing last century. At the same time the fire of a Gould or a Fischer can be discerned; yet is still completely apt – in the way in which Butt relates the G group (BWV 860, 861 [CD.2 tr.s 5-8]) which follow. And, as said, herein lies one of this performance's greatest strengths: Butt approaches the "Wohltemperierte Klavier" as a whole. It's not a series of illustrations, types of music (fugue, exposition, melodic invention, harmonic delight). But a massive – and massively impressive – edifice. It's important that the time you spend in any one room of that whole building makes its own sense, has its own logic, own attractions. But, while there, you know that no room can exist without the others. This is how Butt achieves this integration yet accords value to individual Preludes and Fugues

At the same time, there is never any sense of uniformity, of sameness offered for the apparent sake of cohesion, and which would draw the teeth of any one prelude or fugue. The criticism has been leveled at Butt's playing here that he sacrifices exploration of potential nuances and the individuality of Bach's conception in the interests of conformity; that he is rough where he could be gentle and underplays (some) moments of excitement. Many listeners will probably see this characteristic rather as the welcome absence of eccentricity. One is immersed in the internal development and beauty of each piece as one is listening to Butt's sturdy and confident playing. Indeed, it's a strong sense of confidence that pervades these performances. Couple this with a somewhat understated lyricism and at times even almost a caressing approach to the more introspective movements (the lengthy A minor Fugue, BWV 865 [CD.2 tr.16], for example). Attend to Butt's superb technical mastery and this Linn set reveals itself as entirely worthy of serious investigation.

Butt refers to Leibniz in his background notes. And aptly. The world is one, unified, able to be understood and encompassed. But also composed of strictly interlocking – yet justifiably sole – elements. Such is Butt's conception of the "Wohltemperierte Klavier". And this relationship between whole and parts is mirrored in dance. Our understanding of Bach as a composer every bit as captivated by movement and emotion as by the mind fits with such an interpretation as Butt's here. Nor should the listener be worried that Butt has obscured the essence or energy of the music with theory in such a way that it remains more obvious to the player than the listener.

The instrument Butt uses for these recordings is a copy by Bruce Kennedy of one from the very beginning of the eighteenth century by Michael Mietke (d. 1719); it's actually owned by the Dunedin Consort. It's tuned to a' = 415Hz and has a mellow yet penetrating sound. Genuine, clean, full of stringy resonance and with the clarity and reach of a bell. Yet the instrument is also soft and responsive; it promotes the music, not its own sound. Although its tone isn't a "retiring" one, it's no… bully.

The acoustic is that of St Martin's church in the village of East Woodhay in Hampshire (UK). It's more "familiar" and supportive than overly close or resonant. Just what's needed to bring as many nuances of the music to the fore as possible. Yet not pressing or concealing… the instrument is prime. Butt's own notes in the booklet are extremely illuminating on recent research into the circumstances of composition, tempi and other matters of performance and interpretation. He draws on thinkers of Bach's time. There is a freshness, an integrity and a drive to this performance that commends it to us, if not as the last word on the "Wohltemperierte Klavier", then as one definitely worthy of close attention – and a highly pleasing listen.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey

Trumpet