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Friday, June 22, 2012

JS Bach, Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1: A Composer's Approach, with Don Freund

JS Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, most will know, is one of the singularly brilliant sets of compositions our world has produced.

Composer-Pianist-Musicologist Don Freund has recorded the First Book of Preludes and Fugues from the series and added a DVD of his demonstration and analysis of the first eight sets on Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1: A Composer's Approach (Navona 5869). In all you get the two CDs of music and the DVD lecture disk, at a nice price.

The performances, on pianoforte, are committed and filled with moments where Maestro Freund will via rubato and emphasis, bring out phrases he finds to the point compositionally. It is an unpretentious, very decent reading, if not with the dash and fire of Glenn Gould or the pristine period zeal of Wanda Landowska.

What makes this set especially worthwhile is his lecture disk "Composition Lessons with JS Bach." It captures Professor Freund, presumably at Indiana University where he teaches, providing a very insightful lecture demonstration on the C, C-minor, C# and C#-minor Preludes and Fugues.

It's a DIY video of the lectures themselves, with split-screen presentations of Freund and his piano on one side and Bach's musical notation occupying the other half of the space. For each prelude, each fugue, Prof. Freund has color-coded the notation according to the structural-function of any given passage or line. So with a fugue, you can readily see the fugue subject and its various entrances in the matrix, its permutations, development, the non-structural passages, etc.

What's particularly engaging about the lectures is that Freund looks at each work in terms of compositional strategies. Bach is envisioned writing the actual work, coming to various points in the composition process where he must make choices.

Why he made a particular choice from a strategy standpoint and why Bach was an extraordinary composer for doing so is what the lectures are all about and there are some brilliant analyses. Each prelude-fugue is discussed with Don demonstrating the musical passage in question while you follow on the notation reproduction, then at the end of each set a full performance (from the CD version) is juxtaposed to put it all in perspective.

It serves as a rather brilliant introduction to Bach as a composer sees him, a fellow composer. And so there are moment of delight when we savor a dissonance that the fugal development leads Bach to, moments of free invention, the utter elegance of Bach in simplicity or the incredibly beautiful complexities of his four-part fugal writing.

In the end you go away from this set with insight into the compositional mind of Johann Sebastian Bach. Your appreciation of the Preludes and Fugues are heightened. And then you have some very serviceable and sensitive renditions of the whole of Book One to hear repeatedly.

Students and old hands at the Bach corpus should revel equally in the lectures and appreciate the performances. It's a worthy deal no matter how you look at it. Bravo!

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