J.S. Bach

Recommended (or not) Recordings

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Main Performer
or Conductor:
Peter Watchorn
Individual Works:24 Preludes and Fugues, BWV 846 - BWV 869
Format:Compact Disc
Record Label:musica omnia
Catalog Number:mo0201
Year Released/Recorded:2005
Total Playing Time:144' 36"
Comments:Scott Belyea said:

New recording on a pedal harpsichord. Done using the "Lehman" tuning. Extensive & interesting notes with comments on each pair of pieces including comments on the effect of the tuning and the use of pedal.

Have only been through it once, but I like it very much. Everything seems to "work;" nothing is jarring or out of place; and I listened to both CD's with great pleasure. I'm confident that it's a recording which will "wear well."

Lovely recording quality.

Definitely recommended.

Jan Hanford said:

I found this to be a mostly tedious and ponderous performance. There were a few nice moments but too few to make the recording enjoyable, for me.

The frequent use of the 4' stop was very unpleasant; it's the kind of harpsichord sound that makes people not like the harpsichord. The pedal harpsichord doesn't work here either, the sound is too huge and deep for these pieces. The repetition of the first Prelude in C major at the conclusion of the 24 preludes and fugues because it created "closure" where there was none, is just a pompous affectation and comes off like... well, a pompous affectation. The recorded sound is lovely.

As for the tuning I can only say: The emperor has no clothes.

Peter Watchorn said:

Notes from the performer to Jan Hanford's comments above:

1. Bach owned perhaps as many as three pedal harpsichords (they were left to Johann Christian, the youngest son). They were widely used in Germany in Bach's time. The A minor fugue (no.20) is unplayable without an independent pedal. Other pieces also benefit from its use. The instrument would certainly have not seemed "too huge and deep" to an organist used to playing a 60 rank Silbermann organ, with pedal stops down to 32' pitch. And it does not seem so to me: I think this is instrument is tremendously effective in clearly delineating Bach's counterpoint. Majestic, in fact.
2. Bach's harpsichords (and virtually all Northern European instruments from 1560-1809) all had a 4' register, whose use is an integral part of the plein jeu (full harpsichord) sound, and necessary for many of Bach's more imposing preludes & fugues. Many will find it an exciting sound (as I do, and as 17th-18th century musicians clearly did), especially on a Ruckers type instrument like this one. For the listener's information: there is great variety of registration used throughout these performances. Everything from single 8', 2 x 8', different 8's on different manuals and full harpsichord (8',8',4'). If I had had a 16', I would have used that too, on occasion.
3. The reprise of the first prelude was not intended as a "pompous affectation", and should not be characterised as such. Others may well judge it as effective as I did when I had the idea to do it. Bach himself did it in the Goldberg Variations, another cyclical work from 20 years later.

The temperament, which was the product of much compelling research on the part of Bradley Lehman, (www.larips.com) may well prove very effective to those with the experience to hear the point of it (and perhaps, the point of Bach's writing the work to demonstrate it). It is subtle, but more interesting and characterful than equal temperament. It will be obvious to even the casual listener after a few listenings. It should not be lightly dismissed, since it may very well represent the truth of the matter. Lehman's evidence is very well argued, and the ear accepts it right away. No keys sound bad, which is not the case with other unequal tunings in this music.

I believe that, listened to in the right way, these performances will prove enjoyable to many listeners - that is my hope. Please, just take the time to do it and the music will do the rest.

David Hamilton said:

Although I did find Miss Hanford's comments to be somewhat harsh I found Mr. Watchorn's response to be sadly inappropriate from a so-called professional musician. Are we to believe that if one does not praise a recording there is some flaw in the listener, who did not listen "in the right way"? I have no doubt that Miss Hanford is duly capable of listening "in the right way". I myself did enjoy Mr. Watchorn's performance however after reading his comments I'm disinclined to recommend it to my fellow music lovers for fear they may not listen to it "in the right way" thereby forming a bad opinion of it and further distressing Mr. Watchorn.

Peter Watchorn said:

Thanks to Jan for publishing my comments - she was under no obligation to do so. They were meant to inform, not to denote any sense of upset on my part (although I'd prefer it if she liked my work). However, David Hamilton will, I'm sure agree that recordings take a lot of time, money and effort (especially for a small non-profit label such as ours) and it is surely as fair for a professional musician to answer criticism as it is for others to criticize. This is a public forum, and what I sought to do was to provide supplementary information that many readers might find interesting, as well as an alternative view - and invitation for others to investigate what I believe is an interesting release - and not simply because I'm doing the playing!

Ronald K Tacelli SJ said:

I'm an avid reader of jsbach.org and especially of Jan Hanford's reviews. I've come to trust her judgment so much that when she praises a recording I'll order it right away, if she pans one--well, I figure there's no point even bothering to listen to it. Hence I'm glad I'd already heard Peter Watchorn's WTC, Book 1 before Jan's review appeared; I might have missed what I now consider to be the greatest recording of this work ever made. When I first noticed the pedal harpsichord during the C major Fugue I was startled; I'd never thought of the music that way before. So I stopped everything else I was doing and just listened--again, and again, and again. Once I'd heard the Fugue in C# Major I thought: this is the way it was meant to be heard. Now my previous favorite version (by Glen Wilson) seems thin and anemic. Watchorn has instantiated Bach's music both as an Uebung and as a unified work of art: the very opposite of tedious or pedantic. As for the repetition of the Prelude in C major--I don't understand the offense this elicited. Watchorn is presenting Book 1 as an organic unity and he replays the first Prelude at the end (and more beautifully, by the way) to remind us that the ending has developed from a beginning. It's no more pompous than the flute solo introducing Jordi Savall's version of the Musical Offering. If it's an affectation, it's certainly not self-serving. It's clearly meant to serve the music. And for me at least it works. I hope all readers of this great web-site will give Watchorn's WTC, Book 1 a chance. And, Jan, I hope you'll give it a second chance.

Jan Hanford said:

I am delighted that other people love this recording, I really am. But I stand by my opinion, regardless of how much other people would like me to think differently.

Acknowledgements:Thank you to the following for submitting this recording and for your comments:
  • Scott Belyea
  • Peter Watchorn
  • David Hamilton
  • Ronald K Tacelli SJ
And from the collection of Jan Hanford.
Date First Submitted:06/13/2006