Before a 300-person sold-out Calderwood Studio at WGBH last weekend, mysteriously bathed in an eerie, blue ‘disco’ light, Jeremy Denk gave a note-perfect interpretation of this magisterial work. He entered with a smile, greeting the audience with a sense of friendship and love for his craft. Dressed casually in comfortable jacket and tie-less t-shirt, he appeared non-threatening and one of us. But once the concert began, some intrusive mannerisms became apparent. The artist’s head movements during performance can be very distracting, especially when with eyes closed, he faces us. One expects him to say something, but of course, he doesn’t.
In his opening remarks, the pianist likened the WTC I to Noah’s Ark: a large vessel with animals entering, two by two. That’s an interesting analogy if you agree that the 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys represent a single vessel with matched pairs. They can also be heard as distinct jewels, each having a unique character and color. We will never know if Bach considered this intimate masterpiece as one work or many. Following the current fashion, Denk performed the entire book in one sitting. Written in 1722 (when Bach was Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen), essentially as a teaching tool for his children, the WTC I tested a new way of tuning keyboard instruments. [We have an account from his student Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber that Bach played the entire Book I for him in a single session.]
Well-tempered tuning avoided the ‘wolf’, a jarring sound produced by keyboard instruments using meantone or other unequal temperaments. Whether Werkmeister, Pythagorian or Kirnberger, certain intervals sounded pure while others beat. Keyboard performers were careful to match their temperament schemes for the keys in which they were playing. This music, like most of Bach, has come down to us without dynamic markings. The pianist was faced with a brilliant sounding piano rather than one with warm sound, somewhat limiting his expressive palate. Moreover he used the pedal liberally and allowed himself some very unusual tempi. So, what we heard on Sunday was a Bach/Denk WTC I.
Many preludes, less structurally determined than the fugues, went very fast, e.g. those in C, D, E-flat, B-flat Major, G Minor, and so on; also they exhibited some unexpected rubato. He connected all fugues ‘attaca’ with preludes and he arpeggiated all the final cadences. He took technical passages much faster, seemingly out of context (the F-Minor prelude). And he sacrificed key differences (which do exist, in spite of well-tempered tuning) with his need to interpret. In the fugues he maintained a steady tempo, but occasionally marred them by overuse of staccato to delineate subjects. We heard some fine playing of course, such as in Fugue IV with its haunting B-A-C-H subject transposed into C-sharp Minor; he imbued it with just the right solemnity. [Some scholars believe, though, that when Bach meant to write B A C H he always started with B flat; transpositions may then occur later in the piece.]
Denk paused for a few seconds before approaching the XXIV prelude and fugue, but needed a more dramatic gap to alert listeners to the journey’s end. Thus the last fugue in B Minor somehow lost its focus. Even with, perhaps, a slight loss of energy from having performed WTC I the night before, he gave us an amazing feat of endurance.
The pianist ended where he had begun, with the first prelude in C Major, making liberal use of the pedal to create diaphanous floating arpeggios.