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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book I from Ton Koopman

Ton Koopman is one of the leading conductors and performers of Bach's music. His Bach Cantata series on Erato has garnered continued complimentary comments. I have reviewed one of his Bach/harpsichord discs, the Inventions/Sinfonias for Capriccio, which was a worthy effort.

Back in the early 1990's I acquired his Earto recordings of the entire WTC on harpsichord; that was around the same time I also bought the van Asperen and Glenn Wilson sets. However it happened, I misplaced or sold or donated the three sets. I do remember that I was not high on harpsichord recordings at that time in my life – what was I thinking?

I saw Koopman's Book I in a local store's used bins and acquired it promptly. The presentation is excellent as the cover is attractive and the liner notes have detailed comments on each prelude and fugue. The back of the booklet has a photograph of Koopman that I'm surprised he was willing to have distributed. His head looks like he either just got out of bed or was pushed into a wind tunnel. Never get photographed on a bad hair day.

With grooming matters out of the way, let me tell you about his musical performances:

Koopman plays in a crisp manner. He's much more likely to shorten note values than stretch them. This tendency has much impact on the performances; sometimes I very much enjoyed the shortened notes, and I always found the performances interesting. In a few of the pieces, Koopman creates rhythmic variations from the norm. Again, the impact on the music is significant and interesting.

Koopman finds it hard to put on a happy/joyous face; that last ounce of joy is usually missing when needed. This is Koopman, and he has a similar tendency in his Bach cantata series. I suppose this is a criticism, but I don't expect Koopman to give me the full supply of joy. Yet, the Fugue in F sharp major finds Koopman sloughing off his burdens and really getting into a happy mode with his usual great urgency.

Magical or superlative performances are very infrequent in Koopman's set. Although not one fugue or prelude is less than competitive and my interest level is high, there aren't many that are highly memorable. My favorite is Koopman's reading of the Prelude in B Flat Major. Although he doesn't play it very fast, he sounds like he's being shot out of a cannon. Maybe that's how his hair got so messed up. This performance is of industrial strength, and I won't be forgetting it.

The sound quality of the CD's is good. It's quite stark and clean – very crisp. Sometimes, in the faster/stronger pieces, this crispness becomes too much of a good thing. So, it's not perfect sound, but it's nothing to worry about either.

Just the other day I reviewed a Book I set by Christiane Jaccottet. Rest assured that Koopman's performances easily surpass those of Jaccottet. He's a major league Bach performing artist and fully competitive with most other Book I sets.

Don's Conclusions: I'll give Koopman's Book I a moderate recommendation. I don't think there's much in it to rival the best versions, but it is more interesting than most and always rewarding. I likely admire the set more than I enjoy it. That condition tells me that others of different preferences could well consider Koopman's set outstanding. The only grouping I would advise to steer clear of the Koopman performances is the one that places the highest priority on the full measure of joy in Bach's music being conveyed.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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