IN: Reviews

Denk’s Denkmal to WTC I


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.]

Jeremy Denk (file photo)

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.

Parisian-born pianist Lucienne Davidson entered the Juilliard school when she was nine. Since making her debut at Weill Recital Hall, she has performed as soloist, chamber musician, and with orchestras. She is active in Boston nonprofit boards.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The C#m fugue subject in WTC I is not B-A-C-H transposed in any case — the second pair of notes would have to be brought down a half-step.

    But it does have the shape and for many ears the implication. Israeli Bach scholar Aryeh Oron puts it nicely, a propos another composer’s deployment:

    “It could easily be that Schubert [at the end of his E-flat Mass D950] used the Fuga theme from S849 rather than thinking only of the B-A-C-H motif, but then perhaps he also recognised how Bach could modify a subject or theme and still remain within the parameters of the Gestalt.”

    Comment by David R Moran — April 8, 2022 at 2:30 pm

  2. The reviewer mentions in passing that Bach left no dynamic markings for the WTC, hardly surprising for a harpsichord work, but fails to mention that he also left very few tempo markings. She does say that Denk “allowed himself some very unusual tempi”. The only clue as to what makes these tempi unusual is the mention of many preludes that “went very fast”. Well, of the list given, if anyone has ever played the D major or B-flat major prelude without going very fast, I haven’t heard it, and don’t want to. I don’t remember every tempo Denk used, but the performance never seemed rushed to me. Nor did I note any excess of rubato.

    The reviewer says that “what we heard on Sunday was a Bach/Denk WTC I.” Well, of course it was (though some of us heard it on Saturday). Bach has been dead nearly 300 years, and none of us has heard the Bach-only WTC I. If Pollini had played it, it would have been the Pollini/Bach WTC I, if Ralph Kirkpatrick had played it it would have been the Bach/Kirkpatrick WTC I, and if Lucienne Davidson had played it it would have been the Bach/Davidson WTC I.

    I don’t mean to suggest that a performer can’t intrude upon or subvert the nature of a work – I refer to Glenn Gould’s version of the Goldberg Variations as the Gouldberg Deviations – but if such an accusation is to be made, more evidence needs to be provided. I found Denk’s performance to be beautiful, thrilling, and often moving, always in ways that seemed to emanate more from Bach than from Denk. It is true that there were moments when I heard things I had never heard before in all the many, many times I have listened to this most wonderful of masterpieces. I do not wish that there had been fewer of them.

    Comment by SamW — April 8, 2022 at 6:15 pm

  3. The reviewer is correct that temperaments are an important consideration in the WTC, as the name implies. However, the temperaments Bach would have known, particularly as an organist, were unequal temperaments, such as those devised by Werckmeister and Kirnberger. These eliminated the “wolf” found in meantone and made it possible to play in every key — although all keys were decidedly not the same. The more exotic keys were more out of tune, the more frequently used keys more in tune.

    The same pattern of favored and disfavored keys already existed in meantone. The unequal temperaments merely “shared the wealth” — or more accurately the inharmoniousness — to a more balanced extent than meantone. The piano Denk played, like all other modern pianos, would have been tuned in equal temperament: every key is as slightly out of tune as every other. One result of this is to eliminate the differences in character that result from unequal temperaments, although the piano of course offers other ways of expressing differences in character.

    Comment by Josiah Fisk — April 9, 2022 at 12:59 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.