A renowned organist transfers his decades of experience as a Bach player to the harpsichord, for his first recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
‘I was surrounded by music as a child,’ recalls Wolfgang Rübsam, and he was thrilled when he could clamber up to the piano seat at the age of three to imitate the pupils of his parents, both of them music teachers. For the last 70 years and more, Rübsam has immersed himself in the world of the keyboard, and in the music of Bach in particular, making records first of all for Philips, then Naxos and latterly Brilliant Classics, all of them warmly welcomed for the fidelity of their style and the colours of their phrasing, whether played on harpsichord, organ or modern piano. At 76, Rübsam is undoubtedly one of the Bachians of our time, and yet until quite recently his long and distinguished discography has included no recording of the single most central collection to Bach’s output as a keyboard musician, the two volumes of preludes and fugues which he wrote both as a method of instruction for the budding keyboard player and as a library of his own mastery of the contrapuntal arts.
Rübsam’s chosen instrument for this recording is the lute-harpsichord: a unique keyboard instrument with a unique sound that Bach apparently cherished. It is more forceful than the clavichord but less brilliant than the conventional harpsichord, requiring a touch of its own. According to Fanfare magazine’s review of the set when originally released, ‘I thought I’d heard it all. I was mistaken, and never, on any instrument, have I encountered a take on these masterpieces that breathes such new life into them.’
This set is now widely available on CD for the first time, and joins Rübsam’s other recordings on the lute-harpsichord for Brilliant Classics, of music by Bach and Weiss, as well as a complete set of the organ works by Louis Vierne.
The Well-Tempered Clavier is the generally accepted English translation of the German title, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Bach’s great collection of 48 paired preludes and fugues, often referred to as simply `The 48’. It is the best known of Bach’s clavier works. Part 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier was completed at Köthen in 1722, and Part 2 in Leipzig around 1740. Each part consists of twenty-four preludes and fugues, one prelude and one fugue in each of the twelve major and minor keys, the keys being arranged in chromatic order, alternating in major and minor keys.
The term well-tempered refers to the then novel system of equal (or almost equal) temperament, in which the octave is divided into 12 equal (or almost equal) semitones, and the tuning is such that the transposition is possible without altering the ratio of frequencies for different intervals. In the meantone tuning, on the other hand, which was common until then and still in parallel use, keys are more out of tune the further apart they are from C major. This system made it possible to play equally well in all the keys, and Bach’s collection of The Well-Tempered Clavier was the first complete realization and his achievement the apotheosis of even-tempered tuning.
Hans von Bülow called Das wohltemperierte Klavier the „Old Testament“ of piano literature, it is unlike any other work in the history of music, opening up entirely new territories for both performance and composition, casting its spell for centuries to come.
Wolfgang Rübsam is internationally known as an authoritative Bach interpreter, from recordings of the organ and harpsichord on several different labels. This new recording is played on a lute-harpsichord, an instrument that Bach would have had at home for both music-making in the family and for teaching. The touch required and the sonority produced is delicate, subtly shaded and closely related in its effect to the music of Bach’s French contemporaries, whose music he knew well, such as François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Louis Marchand. The sound is warmer, as it has gut strings and no dampers.
“These lovely performances memorably showcase Rübsam’s sensitive and poetic side. Recommended. Performance: 9” wrote Jed Distler of Classicstoday.com about the earlier issue of Rübsam’s recording of Bach’s French Suites.
Critical praise for Wolfgang Rübsam on Brilliant Classics:
‘If you want something quite unusual in your Bach collection, this should serve well..’ Fanfare (Bach, French Suites, 96277)
‘Bold and expressive… Unexpected (to me) though the sound was, this disc is a welcome addition to the catalogue because of its musicality and its repertoire.’ Fanfare (Weiss, 95509)