The Arts Desk, London
By Graham Rickson, Saturday, 28 March 2020
How a pianist tackles the opening C major Prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier can often set the tone for what follows. You’d expect Glenn Gould’s quirky traversal to encompass extremes of tempo and articulation on the basis of how eccentrically he tackles it, and a recently issued live performance of Book 1 from Keith Jarrett is bright, elegant and smiley from the outset. George Lepauw’s performance of the prelude is very striking: he begins slowly and hesitantly, as if he’s dipping his toes in and testing the waters. Or carefully limbering up in preparation for an epic schlep. His approach works for me. The flexibility never feels indulgent, the magical simplicity of Bach’s thinking laid bare. Purists might argue with how slowly he plays the final bars, but they’re entirely in keeping with what’s gone before. The fugue which follows is straighter but no less effective. The closing bars of the C minor Prelude are similarly stretched. But the effect is mesmeric, Bach’s shift to C major in the last few seconds incredibly affecting. Lepauw can do fast and exciting without effort (try Book 1’s G major Prelude) but he’s most impressive when he’s living in the moment. It’s as if we, and him, are experiencing this music for the first time. The high spots are too numerous to mention, but I’d have to include the same volume’s Bb Major Prelude, Lepauw turning his Steinway into a harp.
This box set fills five CDs instead of the usual four, but Lepauw’s expansive tempi always work in Bach’s favour. I can think of few more enjoyable introductions to what can be a daunting work, and what was described by Hans von Bülow as the “Old Testament of Music” is lyrical, graceful and approachable. Bach’s preludes sound like free improvisations here, but the fugues are as taut and rigorous as any you’ll find on disc. Book 2 follows a similar pattern (try Lepauw’s glorious C# Major Prelude), the final B Minor Fugue a glorious summing up. Don’t switch off, though: Lepauw brings us full circle with an imperceptibly swifter retread of Book 1’s opening. My library recommendations for this work would include versions by Roger Woodward and Peter Hill, and I’d add George Lepauw to the shortlist. It’s well annotated and beautifully recorded in Weimar’s Jakobskirche. Lovely retro sleeve art, too. You may find yourself with some unexpected free time in the coming weeks. Fill some of those spare hours with Lepauw’s Bach, and feed both brain and soul.