- Published on Amazon.com
I remember when E Power Biggs’ first album of Bach organ favorites was released on Columbia Records in the mid 1960s. The first selection on that disk was the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in d minor, which had previously appeared on so many recital programs and phonograph records that Biggsie was compelled to open his (always delightful) program notes with, “What, another d minor?” He then proceeded to explain his rationale for including this war-horse, and insofar as it was the first Bach recording on what was at that time one of the first new tracker instruments to be installed in the United States in over half a century, the recording did provide the sound of something new and different to the American audience.
With regard to the current recording, I’m inclined to paraphrase Biggs by asking, “What, another Well-Tempered?” Literally dozens of keyboard artists have committed their impressions of this timeless work to commercial recordings in the last 70 years or so. The study of these interpretations: the approach of individual performers to the music and the ways in which performance practice has evolved over the years has provided a perpetual source of fascination for me. I have heard it argued that, with everyone (and their aunt) now producing integral recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, it is becoming increasingly difficult for performers to find something “new” to say in this music. I find this a particularly narrow-minded view. If anything, it has demonstrated to me the almost infinitely malleable and plastic nature of this music. It is possible to approach it from virtually any background, to bring to it entirely different concepts of performance practice and instrumentation, and still produce viable and successful musical results. And as new study occurs and new ideas take hold, entirely new ways of looking at (and playing) this music will appear. It is a bottomless well.
In the sense that every new WTC recording has taught me something, I can certainly answer my previous semi-rhetorical question in the affirmative. But that flip answer does great disservice to Edward Parmentier’s new recording of the first book of WTC, which is among the most interesting and satisfying performances of the work I have heard.
I have been familiar with Parmentier’s performance ideas in WTC for many years. During a visit by Ed to participate in the summer Bach Festival some time ago—late 1980s?—I lugged him and a harpsichord to spend an afternoon at the local downtown mall, where he played this entire work—twice!—for the milling public. Although this recording was made in Michigan, I suspect it was recorded at around that same time, as the approach is much as I remember from those rather informal performances.
Edward Parmentier is certainly one of the most interesting and satisfying of Bach players before the public today. While I would be skating on thin ice indeed to suggest that anyone alive today knows how Bach played his own music, Parmentier’s performances always demonstrate a thorough familiarity with it, while reflecting his own unique and colorful interpretive style. His Bach performances are infused with a delightful quirkiness that brings the music to life in ever-changing ways. How? He takes delight in lingering on some details, caressing suspensions and resolutions, overholding notes then separating, arpeggiating chords, bending time and stretching cadences. I never tire of listening to his performances, because there are always new felicities to discover in them—they reward on many levels simultaneously. One has the impression that each individual piece is a journey the artist is making for the first time, and as he proceeds he lingers here and there to examine and appreciate a particular object of beauty.
Given a work of this magnitude and complexity, there can be no definitive performance or recording of it. There are certainly individual preludes and fugues which to my ear are better served by another approach. But it is impossible to fault the overarching concept of this endeavor, which must be counted among the best recorded performances of this work to date. I certainly look forward to the release of Book II with great anticipation.
As with most (if not all) of Edward Parmentier’s recordings, the engineer for this set was Peter Nothnagle, who must also be singled out for considerable praise. The sound is warm and focused, and vividly captures the sound of Parmentier’s instrument, built by Keith Hill.
Finally, this recording also exists as a testament to the lifelong work of the late Joseph Spencer, whose enthusiastic participation in the HPSCHD-L forum during the last years of his life led to a warm friendship with this writer. Joseph had the foresight and ambition to create a small record label and produce a string of exceptional recordings. Those recordings, many of which were engineered by Peter Nothnagle, did much to advance the cause of the early music movement. That record label was Wildboar, and the present recording demonstrates that friends and family recognize the importance of Joseph’s legacy, and are working to continue it.