Sunday, February 17, 2008

Well Tempered

"My favorite..." can either be a game of delightful reflection or sign of an unhealthy inflexibility. I choose the former, knowing that I can (and will) change my mind. Having said that, if I really, really had to pick one work--and only one work--to accompany me on a desert island for and eternity of coconuts and fish, it requires almost no reflection on my part to select Book I of Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. (If I could also sneak in Book II, I would, of course!)

Fortunately, I don't have to make such a decision. However, I don't think a month goes by without me listening to the entire Book. I even have the Henle pocket score, which I sometimes break out to follow along; I find it especially useful for the fugues. I like it on everything, harpsichord, piano, and (of course) clavichord. Indeed, the recording I listen to the most often is by Jaroslav Tůma on a magnificent clavichord by Martin Kather--sadly difficult (if not impossible) to get. I don't want to get into the endless and meaningless discussion of the "intended instrument" was: this is pure music that transcends mediums.

I recently came upon a recording by Luc Beauséjour, one of North America's finest harpsichordists, newly released on the Naxos label. I really wasn't in the market for another recording on harpsichord, as I am very partial towards the recording by Pierre Hantaï. In fact, the two recordings make a very nice contrast in styles. Hantaï plays with great abandon, rhythmic freedom, and variety of tempi. I also like the instrument he uses, after an anonymous Thuringian instrument, ca. 1720: it is a bold, fresh sound, although it doesn't have much variety between the two 8' registers. Like everything Hantaï records, you are probably going to really like it, or very much dislike it.

Beauséjour is probably a safer bet for the conservative, although my first listening left me a little lukewarm on two accounts: I didn't particularly like the sound of the instrument through headphones and I thought his approach was perhaps a little too straightforward and cerebral. However, it was definitely not a "throw-away", and I find I grow to appreciate it more with each listening.

Let me address the issue of sound with an observation that I have come upon since I have acquired my nice, new stereo: headphones can be wonderful, but they are most definitely not the same as listening to a lifelike reproduction in a room with good acoustics. My stereo system creates an image that is so lifelike that I can picture a harpsichord where the speakers are; it is uncanny. The experience with headphones is not the same; they may actually get you too close to the sound. I think it is also possible that when I am listening with headphones, I am listening to a compressed audio file that just may be stripping out enough of the dynamics and harmonics to further alter the sound. (Regardless of the acoustic superiority of my larger stereo, I continue to listen via iPod and headphones even more: it is an issue of convenience.)

And, so I find my initial response to the sound of the Beauséjour recording to not hold up: it is a fine, if not particularly distinguished instrument that serves the music well. (It is worth noting that its buff stop is very nice, as demonstrated by the prelude in F-sharp.)

Beauséjour's approach is very uncomplicated and tempi are on the brisk side: it is a very "pure" reading. For those who find Hantaï excessive, this might have a lot of appeal. I find there is room in my World for both. Which brings me to the interesting question for my hypothetical island: just how many recordings of my "favorite" can I bring with me, because just one wouldn't do.