Keith Jarrett’s Live Well-Tempered Clavier Resurrected

Thirty-two years after it was recorded, pianist Keith Jarrett’s live reading of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, has seen the light of day. Performed in the fabled acoustic of the Troy Saving Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York—a favorite venue of the early Dorian recording team—and recorded well by ECM New Series, the performance is now available on two CDs, downloadable in 24/44.1 from multiple sites (Acoustic Sounds, HDTracks, and Pro Studio Masters, for starters), and streamable in MQA on Tidal and in 24/44.1 FLAC on Qobuz. The recording’s engineering emphasizes contrapuntal clarity over the venue’s fabled reverberation, which works very well in this music.

You’d never know it was a live performance from the calm evenness with which Jarrett approaches this collection of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. His playing is even, immaculate, and, within the limits of his "stick to the notes" approach, expressive. The joy he conveys in the opening Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, is contained yet boundless. Jarrett’s playing suggests an awareness of the sound and action of the early harpsichord and clavichord for which these preludes and fugues were written; he eschews extremes of romantic expression, and performs with pristine simplicity. He does his best to keep his not-insubstantial ego out of the way and allow Bach’s music to speak for itself. And there's virtually none of the verbal interpolations heard in many of Jarrett’s jazz recordings.

It’s a valid approach. Occasionally, the playing can sound ploddy, as in the Fugue in C sharp minor, BWV 849, or even prosaic. But when Jarrett and Bach describe a universe filled with grace (Prelude in E Major, BWV 854) or simple joy (the corresponding Fugue in E Major, BWV 854), or explore the limits of staccato expression (Prelude in E Minor, BWV 855), the artistry is superb.

No single recording can do full justice to Bach’s multi-dimensional explorations. Edwin Fischer, in his classic first recording, expresses the joy of the opening prelude with stunning alacrity, and the irresistible glow of his piano’s treble range compensates for the dated, somewhat fuzzy sound. Fischer indulges in more dynamic shifts and uses a firmer touch than Jarrett.

The soft vulnerability of some of Angela Hewitt’s playing is a thing of rare beauty, and her romantic swells, frequent changes of tempo, and occasional intentional hesitations make for an experience entirely different than Jarrett’s. Listen to how long she holds the final note of the Fugue in B Minor, BWV 869, as though suggesting that there is always more to be said.

In brief listens to Daniel Barenboim, I found him less romantically extreme than Hewitt but still quite expressive. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on the other hand, frequently defied my hopes and expectations, beginning with a joyless opening prelude, recorded in an unduly resonant acoustic. After listening to the first few tracks of Aimard’s rendition, I moved on.

For Jarrett lovers, of which there are legions, this alternative to Jarrett’s studio recording of 1988 is an essential purchase. The simplicity of his performance is a thing apart, and, in some respects, closer to what we think Bach may have expected to hear than what many other major pianists have given us since Fischer finished the first complete recording of both books in 1936.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- JVS.

NeilS's picture

Was also recorded by some of the finest 20th century classical pianists such as Rosalyn Tureck, Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter and Samuil Feinberg.

Any of them, or the other classical pianists mentioned above whose recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier that I've heard, i.e., Edwin Fischer and Angela Hewitt, are in a different league than what I heard in Jarrett's performance of Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C, BWV 846 above. IMHO of course.

foxhall's picture

I assume he does not vocalize in his classical recordings?

ken mac's picture

how the engineers contained his annoying vocal ramblings? I love Jarrett, but his vocalizations are maddening.

Jim Austin's picture
he's not improvising here. Maybe that's why. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
Jason Victor Serinus's picture

He's not pushing into unchartered territory; he's reading notes, and playing as evenly and precisely as he can (and wishes). You can occasionally hear pages turn.

pbarach's picture

Nice sound, but not much expression. I'd rather listen to Edwin Fischer or Richter any day. I haven't heard Aimard's WTC, but in general I find him an emotionally inexpressive musician in anything preceding Ravel.

Ali's picture

Edwin Fischer has several performances, which one do you like most?

Robin Landseadel's picture

As far as I can tell, Edwin Fischer has one complete performance of the WTC. I can't stand it, blurry phrasing, more than a few fumbles, bad sound. Keith Jarrett is wrong for this music in so many ways, I don't know where to start. The recording of the WTC that Requires a proper reissue is Samuil Feinberg, recorded in the former USSR in decent mono, currently streamable in very bad fake stereo. Feinberg nails the timing and phrasing. So does Sviatoslav Richter, in better sound. Jarrett plays the notes and that's about it, one can easily do better. Glenn Gould's humming is better, his playing is in another, superior category.

Of course there were no pianos in Bach's time. There's lots of good Harpsichord recordings of this music, the instrument that Bach most likely intended for these compositions. Gustav Leonhardt and Davitt Moroney have good versions in decent sound.

JBLMVBC's picture

Polyphony recreated through understanding of articulation and religious symbolism derived from protestant chorals are at the heart of this music.

ednazarko's picture

As pbarach says, not much expression. It comes off like most advanced musical students would understand... played mostly for the technical challenge and learning to sound at ease when doing insanely difficult things. I say this because I was a trombone and tuba (and several other low brass instruments) player, union card and all... And I could play the thick book of Bach Two Part inventions, either part, on any instrument I played, from memory. In any key, not just the key they were written in. I know all of my classical music friends had the same experience because I used to play the Two Part Inventions with them... from flute down to tubas. (Hearing two tubas do the Two Part Inventions is known to cause permanent brain damage.)

My keyboard friends had Well Tempered Clavier burned into their brains from the time before they were teens. As the Two Part Inventions haunted wind instrument players. so the WTC haunted keyboard players.

I found it to be very pleasant background (issued at well below zero dB... be careful with what you listen to next if you listen to this.) I've had it on while I banged out white papers, articles, and a couple of anagrams. Good because it never distracted me from my work.

Anton's picture

I can see how sometimes an overwrought take on a piece we've all heard a thousand times might be the attention getter. I mean, we gotta find something to continue to emote to, but this interpretation is pretty lovely and allows the listener to think for himself.

I like this 400th cover version of this music.

Next up, I'm going to go find another cover version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons to check out!