This album features Australian-American harpsichordist Peter Watchorn, backed up in various ways by other well-known figures in the American historical-performance movement (the instrument's tuning, of which more in a moment, is by Bradley Lehman and one of the producers is keyboardist Penelope Crawford). For that movement, the disc may mark a kind of watershed, for it applies arcane scholarship to produce a sound that will be rewarding and startling for general listeners. It may seem hard to create a genuinely novel reading of the Well-Tempered Clavier, but Watchorn succeeds in doing so for Book 1 here (Book 2 will follow in a separate release, and unfortunately the booklet notes are confusing in the way they skip between the two bodies of music). Several aspects of the performance are unusual. First there is the use of a pedal harpsichord -- a harpsichord with a row of foot pedals that gives a lower register with a big, organ-like sound. One builder described the instrument as being "as elusive as the shy unicorn and possessed of the same menacing charm." Although no examples have come down to us intact, the pedal harpsichord undoubtedly existed in Bach's time and was often owned by keyboard players (it wasn't just used to produce a proto-funky sound on 1960s folk-rock albums). The one used here has an impressive sound that takes the Well-Tempered Clavier out of the realm of didactic or demonstration music, giving many of the preludes the flavor of an organ toccata. Some of them, indeed, have low lines that almost seem to demand the instrument played here. Then there is the way the instrument is tuned. Tuner Bradley Lehman follows instructions of Bach's that seem to indicate a slightly different tuning for each key (indeed the tuning is credited in the booklet to "Lehman/Bach"). A good deal of technical data is provided for those interested, but the casual hearer will have no trouble corroborating Lehman's basic summary; "major-key passages tend to give a luxurious and unproblematic flow, a basically even-keeled personality. Minor-key passages tend to draw more attention to themselves with powerfully dramatic strokes, more vivid and obvious gestures." A good way to hear the heightening in intensity of the minor pieces is to listen to the big B minor fugue, disc 2, track 24.
This differentiation among the individual pieces in the set continues with Watchorn's interpretations, which are laid out and buttressed by his own extended set of notes. For Watchorn, each prelude and fugue is an individual. The French, Italian, and German sides of Bach's musical personality interpenetrated one another, resulting in one piece that has "Italianate trills," another that "suggests the rhythm of a loure, or perhaps a siciliano." Whatever the merits of this approach -- and of the whole concept of the album, which is questionable for a work presented as unitary -- the execution is brilliant, with the harpsichord pedals amplifying the general expressiveness. The final wrinkle is very unusual: Watchorn reprises the opening C major prelude at the end of the set to round it out. For documentation here he has nothing more than a T.S. Eliot verse about arriving back where we started and knowing the place for the first time, but it's entirely possible that the solution will be persuasive enough to catch on. The overall impression: this is a recording both majestic and scholarly, a rare combination indeed. For harpsichordists and their followers this is going to be an essential disc, and it is very much worth hearing, rehearing, and digesting for any Bach lover.