Robert Schumann, who revered Johann Sebastian Bach, recommended that young pianists should make the two books of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ their ‘daily bread’. The collection is indeed familiar to many from an early age but most performers (pianists, harpsichordists and even organists) only give it in concert and record it after ‘moulding’ that bread every day in the secrecy of their practice rooms.
Musicians tackle ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ in the same way as actors play Shakespeare’s ‘Lear’ or singers perform Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, once they have reached the appropriate age. The cycle is testing for the fingers but perhaps even more so for the brain: these stylistically differentiated preludes and complex fugues must be given an overall coherence that does not diminish the singularity of their parts. Each component of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ can be one thing and its opposite.
This is precisely what the forty-two-year-old Swiss pianist Cédric Pescia demonstrates by setting out in a few moments an ‘acoustic theatre’. The sound is a beautifully lustrous bronze, profound, conducive to minute gradations of density, texture and articulation and the pedalling is subtle. The long fugues find in this noble but never haughty playing one of their most beautiful incarnations on the disc: the final fugue of the First Book, in the same tormented B minor as the ‘Kyrie’ of Bach’s great Mass, shows this with the blinding evidence that can be achieved only by the great artists.