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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book II from Ralph Kirkpatrick

A short number of weeks ago, I reviewed Ralph Kirkpatrick's performances on clavichord of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book I and found them highly rewarding and worthy of acquisition. Kirkpatrick's Book II, also on clavichord, has now been released and is the subject of this review. The set is on Deutsche Grammophon with a catalog number of 463623-2.

Archiv 463623-2

As with Book I, Kirkpatrick delivers well nuanced and expressive readings with fine lyricism and depth. His clavichord has a crisp and tangy flavor which, combined with excellent accenting and phrasing, provides a distinctive and rewarding listening experience. Kirkpatrick also has a superb sense of rhythmic flow and pulse.

Here are some highlights of the set:

Prelude & Fugue in C sharp major – Kirkpatrick's Adagio in the Prelude is very fast and initially sounded rushed; however, he quickly had me totally convinced of his approach as I was drawn into the momentum and drive of the reading. The Allegro is exciting with a high degree of lyricism. In the Fugue, Kirkpatrick's urgency, tension, poetry, and playfulness results in a performance which surpasses most of the alternatives.

Fugue in C sharp minor – This piece usually conjures up images for me of cataclysmic upheavals. Gould and Gulda have been my standards with their blistering performances; Kirkpatrick is in this camp and equally effective. Given that I generally don't find the clavichord an excellent match for powerful and fast music, I am particularly impressed with Kirkpatrick's reading. He keeps the 'heat on' from start to finish.

Fugue in D Major – Kirkpatrick invests this reflective and uplifting music with a compelling nobility and rhythmic flow.

Prelude in E Major – Kirkpatrick brings an exquisite and delicate touch to this joyful and uplifting Prelude.

Prelude in F minor – The majestic Prelude has a wide palate of colors and emotions which Kirkpatrick conveys as effectively as any other version including the Gulda and Tureck readings. Kirkpatrick's three note sighs are particularly stunning.

Fugue in G Major – Gulda's version is my standard for the G major; his slow pacing and staccato delivery wins my heart. Kirkpatrick, although quicker than Gulda, provides a delicate touch which blends beautifully with the music's drama and urgency.

Any negatives? Sometimes, Kirkpatrick is very quick with a little loss of lyricism. This is not a serious problem as he always maintains a strong pulse. Also, I do feel that his set is stronger in the first half of Book II.

Don's Conclusions: Kirkpatrick's Book II is a fine achievement, and the use of the clavichord throughout is unusual and distinctive. His performances compare well with those on clavichord by Robert Levin on his very rewarding Hänssler set. Although I do prefer the performances by Tureck and Gulda, Kirkpatrick provides a fine alternative. My recommendation for those wanting at least a few versions of the WTC is to make sure you count Kirkpatrick as one of them. I do not recommend the set as an only version; for that scenario, Gulda and particularly Tureck are recommended.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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