The Piano Files

The First Complete Recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

Edwin Fischer’s legendary recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was the first complete cycle on disc — but not the first attempt.
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Well-Tempered Clavier

My previous post explored the first-ever recording of the complete Beethoven’s Sonatas and the complex process required of pianist Artur Schnabel to produce that groundbreaking cycle in the 1930s. It is certainly worth examining another important cycle and its first appearance on disc: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Historical recording collectors will know that Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer was the artist selected by HMV for their Bach Society recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which coincided with Schnabel making his recording of the Beethoven Sonatas. What is not as known was the fact that the first attempt at a complete recorded traversal of the WTC started place a few years earlier but was abandoned partway through.

The Columbia label had the idea to present Bach’s “48” with several pianists in different sections. On October 11 and 12, 1928, the great British pianist Harriet Cohen recorded the first nine Preludes and Fugues of Book 1. Her playing is notable for its clarity of texture, beauty of tone, and disarming directness:

After that, another eight were recorded by an artist far less remembered today, British pianist and pedagogue Evlyn Howard-Jones, whose contributions were recorded on October 8, 1929 and February 19, 1930. Howard-Jones plays with incredible warmth and exquisite refinement of tone, with more pedal and nuance than would be the norm today but which allow the beauty of the music to shine through in this utterly beguiling performances:

It has been stated that another British Bach specialist, Harold Samuel, may have been slated to record the remainder of Book 1, but this has not been confirmed. Alas, the project folded when HMV merged with Columbia, and it would be another few years before HMV would create a subscription system to fund Edwin Fischer’s account of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier.

Fischer recorded the magnum opus in 17 sessions between 1933 and 1936 at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios (one session in Berlin yielded no published discs). The final result was five volumes of heavy shellac records of the “48” — just under four hours of playing, which can now be held on 3 CDs that fit in the palm of your hand… and which can also take up zero physical space in a single YouTube clip!

Like Cohen and Howard-Jones before him, Fischer does not refrain from taking advantage of all that the piano can bring to Bach’s music. He plays with a gorgeous array of tonal colours and wonderful use of dynamics, with some utterly magnificent pedal effects and marvellous lyrical phrasing.
At the time these recordings were made, it was not expected that a performer would simply reproduce the text to present the music as a kind of sonic architectural blueprint; a performer would tastefully appoint the interior of the structure so that the beauty of the blueprint was brought to life — like a lived-in home instead of the shell of a house — and the art was in doing so with style, rather than having either a spartan or a gaudy interior. As an avid gardener, Fischer noted that there is no growth with sterile earth: one requires humus and bacteria to create life, and so he presents the music as a living, breathing organism. He revels in the utter beauty of the music and allows the listener to do the same.

And so here, thanks to the marvels of technology, is Edwin Fischer’s glorious account of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier — a truly historical traversal worthy of attentive listening and appreciation.

Website: thepianofiles.com

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