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J S Bach Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1

Robert Woolley, clavichord

October 29 2011, Quaker Meeting House, Oxford

The clavichord is a demanding instrument: to produce a good sound, one must think carefully about each note, and play it with just the right amount of pressure. So playing 24 preludes and fugues in one afternoon is a major task requiring the utmost concentration. It was triumphantly accomplished by Robert Woolley on October 29 in the Quaker Meeting House.

Hearing Book 1 as a whole was a revelation. The preludes are all so different, and so beautiful; and the fugues help to bind the preludes together into a single structure of alternating formal and informal pieces. Though, Bach being Bach, the formal-informal alternation is not quite regular; for example, Prelude 7 is in fact a toccata and fugue - and a substantial 4-part fugue at that - while Fugue 7 is light and scherzo-like.

The different characters of the pieces were well brought out in this performance. Each musical line was clear, intelligible, and beautifully shaped, even in the complex four- and five-part fugues, and the structure of each piece was made clear by subtle pauses for breath at key points - yet the feeling of forward movement was never lost, even in the more thoughtful cantabile pieces. I particularly enjoyed the last few bars of each item; there are so many ways of approaching the end: various degrees of slowing down, perhaps followed by a crisp cadence, or going full speed to the end, to name but a few. Woolley used a great variety of approaches, always beautifully managed, making me smile every time.

The Karin Richter clavichord 2009 (copied from an anonymous unfretted clavichord c.1730 from the Dresden region) sounded clear and beautiful in the wood-panelled Meeting Room, and it was an ideal medium for this music. A harpsichord can sound ravishingly beautiful, but it’s arguable that the Well-Tempered Clavier is better served by a less strongly flavoured sound. I was reminded of the old saying “with the harpsichord you listen to the instrument; with the clavichord you hear the music”.

David Griffel