Bach’s Adventure through Every Key
April 4, 2010

Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Caruth Auditorium, SMU
Dallas, TX
Thursday, April 1, 2010
8:00 p.m.

The title of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier refers to a tuning that allows musicians to play in all twenty-four keys, major and minor, unlike the “just tuning” that stacks Pythagorean fifths (intervals of a 3:2 ratio) on top of each other to produce the twelve notes of the Western scale, which subsequently makes some keys sound out of tune. Yet, because the distance between each note is not equal in the well-tempered tuning, as it is in modern “equal tempered” tunings, each prelude and fugue of Bach’s WTC has a different disposition.

“Color” is the staple word to describe the different characters of each key, which is the origin of the word “chromatic.” The WTC has a clear design, then, as it is organized chromatically, one prelude and one fugue in every key. The triumph of Bach’s masterpiece is not limited to the colors that the well-tempered tuning allows, but the range of styles, tempos, and emotions is astonishing and what gives this collection its staying power.

Nine piano students and teachers from the Meadows School of Music joined together to give an audience the rare experience of listening to the first book of Bach’s WTC in its entirety.

Each piece has its own character: the C major prelude is a beautifully simple; the F minor fugue is intriguing and cerebral, the G Major prelude is a whirlwind of sparks; the D Major fugue is stately and proud; the B flat minor prelude is haunting.

And each performer had his or her own character, too. Hannah Payne played sensitively while using full, broad lines. Thomas Schwan’s style was serious and formal, while Alberto Peña’s was bold. David Karp played in a more Baroque style, simplifying the dynamics and letting the harmonies of the interweaving lines speak for themselves, until the F minor prelude, which was too saucy.

Lucille Chang played too much in the Romantic style for my tastes. Worse, her resolutions at the ends of phrases were harsh and sometimes downright ugly. Alessio Bax was the star performer, playing more preludes and fugues than anyone else and playing them better than anyone else. He was the only performer who could maintain three simultaneous voices with three different dynamics. His technique coupled with his imagination made the E major fugue the highlight of the evening.

On Monday, April 5 at 8:00 p.m. in Caruth Auditorium in the Meadows building on SMU’s campus a similar group of  pianists will perform the second book of Bach’s WTC. The concert is free. I will be there.