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Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I Import

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Parmentier's WTC is a winner. April 15 2015
By dkelzenb - Published on
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.
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Bach "in itself" Oct. 23 2008
By Giuseppe Tulli - Published on
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
I hope not to be misleading, but this is one interpretation of WTC I, and Bach, that distincly communicates an "idea of form in itself". I'm quoting, of course, Plato, and this is certainly a "mathematical" vision of Bach, to be sharply contrasted to more "human" renditions of the work (like the excellent Hantai's, for instance).

A "mathematical", formal or structural approach to Bach is native to his music. And in this respect this interpretation is closer in essence to WTC II or the Art of Fugue. The performance is therefore "intelligible", especially in the fugues (from the very first in C and of course c# minor, to the "sans pareille" renditions of the fugues in e flat minor, f# minor and b minor). I know of no other interpretation of WTC I with this sense of scale, and rigorous (and ambitious, may a I say?) "grandeur" as well. Only Nikolayeva (on the piano) and Leonhardt come close (Landowska's and Tureck's interpretations are great, but sound as if coming from "high-priestesses" of Bach, and thus more "human").

This is a landmark interpretation of WTC I, a veritable reference to this work. And like many great works it seems that it will too share a "fate of scarceness". It's striking to me that I could found it last year and now it's gone out of print, like most of the other grand interpretations of Parmentier. Don't even hesitate to grab a copy, even at collectible prices.

Anyway, I want to include a link to a complementary review that, while acknowledging the structural clarity ("intelligibility", in my words) in the interpretation, expresses reservation on the "restraint on Parmentier's part concerning emotional intensity." I think we have enough of very good "emotional" interpretations of this music while, as I said above, a formal or "mathematical" level is native to Bach's work. It is certainly more native to later works like WTC II and Art of Fugue, but it truly enlightens an earlier work like WTC I. In this respect Parmentier's interpretation has no equals.

Here's the link:

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Bach well tempered clavier book 1 by Parmentier Sept. 26 2007
By r.b. - Published on
Format: Audio CD
This account of Bach's well tempered clavier book 1 by Edward Parmentier is by no means bad but is no match for the superior performance
of those players listed below.Parmentier's recording benefits from outstanding sound quality and a magnificent harpsichord but his choice of tempi in some places coupled with quite frequent hesitations which hinder the flow of the music just didn't work for me.Really good harpsichord performances of book 1 are pretty hard to come by but Bob Van Asperen,Glen Wilson,Pieter Jan Belder,Luc Beausejour and Gary Cooper remain the finest available.