ARTA Records - ARTA Music cz en

Jaroslav Tůma


F10165     [8595017416521]     4CD
TT - 301:29     released 10/2008     reviews

„Das Wohltemperirte Clavier oder Praeludia, und Fugen durch alle Tone und Semitonia …“

Book I  (Köthen 1722), BWV 846 – 869
CD I:  Preludes and Fugues 1 – 12
CD II: Preludes and Fugues 13 – 24
Clavichord built by Martin Kather from Hamburg in 1999, after the David Tannenberg manuscript from 1761

Prodej MP3 dočasně pozastaven

Book II (Leipzig 1744), BWV 870 – 893
CD III: Preludes and Fugues 1 – 12
CD IV: Preludes and Fugues 13 – 24
Clavichord built by Martin Kather from Hamburg in 1997, after German masters in a french style

Prodej MP3 dočasně pozastaven

The Well-Tempered Clavichord! That looks almost like a mistake in the title of your CD!
It’s no mistake; it’s there on purpose, and, if you like, it is also a subtle provocation. Some may be annoyed by a title like that; others won’t be, and will find it interesting. Bach called his work Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, which, in the established Czech translation, Dobře temperovaný klavír, seems to me, no matter how accurate, a bit clumsy. What keyboard instrument did Bach intend his work for? It’s not clear even from the title page of the autograph. In my opinion and the opinion of many others, he mainly left it up to us to decide.

The title page, however, contains other important information, like Bach’s wish that the work should be ‘for the use and needs of young musicians eager to learn, and also for those already advanced in this study’.
His wish was more than fulfilled. The popularity of the ‘Old Testament’ of piano playing, as the collection of preludes and fugues was called by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, kept growing over the centuries. Today, despite the distinct revival of interest in historically informed interpretation, many interpreters and listeners continue to prefer performances on the modern piano, which, however, didn’t exist in Bach’s day.

In short, for Bach the word ‘Clavier’ obviously means the keyboard of a keyboard instrument. Nevertheless, you consider various interpretations by modern pianists to be highly inspirational and completely legitimate!
Particularly when I’m listening, Bach’s music itself – its structure, form, and philosophy, or, simply put, its content – remains the most important thing. Only after that comes the choice of musical instrument. Except that sometimes the latter is fatefully linked with the former. Though Bach’s music stands up to various interpretations and timbres better than music by other composers, as an interpreter I have an advantage with the clavichord in that it directly influences my conception, and also, with its technical and sound possibilities, suggests to me how a certain phrase should be played, what I can do with the rhythm, and it sets limits to what dynamics and tempo I can choose, whether fast or slow. In short it’s not only a partner to me, but also, indeed chiefly, an indispensible teacher. The clavichord is, moreover, not only suitable to the times because of its being so widespread, but it’s also definitely capable of a more distinctively individual statement.

It was not for nothing that it was Bach’s favourite instrument. You first came into contact with the clavichord in Holland. You won one in the 1986 organ improvisation competition in Haarlem.
But also, back then, I first thought it was some kind of toy, a joke. Eventually, however, it ‘grabbed’ me and didn’t let me go. There’s a story that makes the rounds about Ralph Kirkpatrick’s clavichord recording. When his former teacher, the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, caught word that he was recording Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on the clavichord, she felt sorry for him. She apparently said that she wished he’d been allowed to record it on the harpsichord. To her, a harpsichordist who played in large halls, the clavichord must have seemed inferior. She probably considered her former pupil’s difficult task an unpleasant whim of the record company. He himself, however, accepted the task with the clavichord with evident gusto.

And he made a recording that for a number of decades t remained alone in its category and therefore exclusive. The mistrust of the clavichord back then is understandable from another point of view. Kirkpatrick’s recording was made in the 1960s. The recording technology and sensitivity of microphones at the time were completely different from what they are today.
That’s for sure. The task for the sound engineers, in our case Aleš Dvořák and Tomáš Zikmund, to capture the sound of the instrument as objectively as possible, is therefore all the more important today. Almost fifty years ago, that was extremely difficult. The clavichord sounds very weak. But if you hear one at a concert, you get a chance to hear how confusing its dynamics are. During the first minutes of listening to it, you hear almost nothing; then your ear grows accustomed, and you can perceive a whole range of timbres and tones. When listening to the CD, everyone adjusts the dynamics to suit themselves. Yet I would recommend choosing a somewhat lower sound level. The ear will get used to it. Easily adjusted forte or fortissimo is, after all, inauthentic. With a clavichord it’s unattainable in real life.

You recorded both parts in the workshop of the organ-maker Dalibor Michek in Studénky near Jihlava. Why there? Did the weak dynamics of the clavichord present any difficulties for today’s advanced recording technology?
We wanted a nice space that wasn’t too big and had natural acoustics. We didn’t anticipate using any additional sound adjustments. What was important was to try and capture not only the instrument but also the space around it, in other words the feel of the stone, wood, and air. Only then can the recording radiate its own distinct ‘flavour’. I made recordings in January 2000 and August 2002, even before my two versions of the Goldberg Variations in 2004. When recording the first part, for which I reserved a whole week, there was a big snow storm, making it impossible to drive; when recording the second part – it again took a week – there was another big storm and flooding. Fortunately in both cases we had the prayed-for breaks of roughly one and a half days while the elements raged. Thanks to the truly extraordinary efforts of all those taking part we managed to make the recording. Particularly in January 2000 the situation was really dramatic. After endless waiting for the winds to die down we worked into the night; owing to another bad weather forecast the last of our recording sessions began immediately afterwards, at half past five in the morning. With the last notes of the B-minor fugue on the afternoon of the same day, the wind began to blow furiously again, and the next morning a state of emergency was declared in the Vysočina region. The snow was as high as the roof.

The first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier was initially released by Supraphon, but then they were no longer interested in issuing the second part, which in the meantime was prepared and recorded. Now Arta has acquired the rights for the first part, and is releasing it together with the second part for the first time.
Some musicians are very reluctant to release their recordings again or to release older recordings whose release was delayed, often arguing, for instance, ‘Today I would record it differently’. Fortunately, I’m reconciled to my earlier interpretations, even basically satisfied, without considering them the only possible recordings.

The first and second books of The Well-Tempered Clavier were composed by Bach in two different periods. The first 24 preludes and fugues from C major to B minor were composed in Köthen, in 1722. The other 24 were composed in Leipzig, in 1744, just a few years before Bach’s death. Some people think that the second book, simply because of the time between the two periods, is stylistically unsuited to the clavichord.
Other people, however, try to assign the individual pairs of compositions to various keyboard instruments, including the hammerklavier (or fortepiano) and the organ. I, however, find the second book just as well suited to the clavichord as the harpsichord. I certainly didn’t feel in the second book that there were any limitations to my ideas about the musical interpretation and development of the work. Don’t forget that harpsichords, clavichords, and hammerklaviers lived side by side, in parallel, for many decades. Even in the nineteenth century clavichords were the most widespread keyboard instruments, particularly owing to their advantages in teaching.

Several years ago Arta issued your recording of the Goldberg Variations in two versions together: on the harpsichord on one CD and on two clavichords, one atop the other, on the second CD of the pair. Were you at the time having difficulty deciding which of the two instruments to use?
It was a challenge to carry out both difficult tasks. Each instrument needed its own, different interpretation. The harpsichord is transparent and more of a virtuoso. The clavichord, on the other hand, is more inward, more intimate. Though it has the disadvantage of weak dynamics, everything else that can be played on it seems to me advantageous. In addition to those features, I’d also mention the possibility of being able to differentiate each individual voice on the horizontal line, which is very nice particularly with polyphony. And, by the way, one can emphasize or suppress a tone or tones in the vertical direction as well.

And even tune it. The clavichord is the only keyboard instrument on which one can influence the pitch of a tone while playing it.
We know that the old ways of tuning made it impossible to play in all the keys on keyboard instruments, because a number of chords sounded really out of tune. Bach was one of the first to break the centuries-old taboo and begin to use even keys with many sharps and flats. From the point of view of the twentieth century it used to be normal to claim that that was how Bach made it clear how badly he wanted to solve the problem of tuning once and for all – namely, by making all semi-tones ‘equal’. And, gradually, that did indeed happen. But Romantic and Modern music were thereby made poorer in terms of the character of the keys. On the other hand, it brought many other newly invented musical features, which compensated more than enough for what it took away.

In Bach’s day, however, a great number of tuning systems were established, which, to be sure, did not completely get rid of the inequality of intervals, but made it possible to play in all keys while retaining the advantages of the different characters of the keys.
Much of the credit for the dissemination of tunings that suited the times is due in particular to Andreas Werckmeister, who gradually published them from 1681 onwards. On the clavichord, however, you can use your fingers to refine or to tune, not completely pure harmonies in keys with many sharps or flats. This is done by pressing with your finger just after the tone is sounded. With your finger you can also make the tone vibrate. Something like that is out of the question on the harpsichord. For me, this fact is the most striking argument in favour of the clavichord, particularly concerning both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In choosing a nice tuning there remains a subtle inequality, whereby the difference between the interval proportions is preserved in different keys. None the less, one can use one’s fingers to mask some of the more stridently out-of-tune tones and ‘to press’ the harmonies to be pure. I was able to do that, however, particularly thanks to the mastery of Martin Kather, the clavichord maker on whose instruments I could record. He also assisted in the recording and tuned the clavichords perfectly.

Does that mean, then, that to play Bach’s preludes and fugues is even harder on the clavichord than on the harpsichord?
It’s relatively harder. Bach is, by the way, quite difficult also for the listener, but beautiful, full of different moods, and not unnecessarily complicated. No matter how sophisticated the counterpoint is, it’s always either clear or, by contrast, so subtle that we don’t even notice it. The preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier are in this sense truly exemplary compositions. The important thing was to decide whether there was any point in recording a composition that had already been recorded so many times. The question was whether I could contribute to the many recordings in some distinctive way, with my own original conception.

Today musicians either study primary sources and do thorough research on how to interpret this or that composer in the most authentic way or they simply try not to deviate from the many established interpretations.
I didn’t try to do either one those things. It was more a matter of my capturing the character of the compositions in the way I experience them, and to shape them with enough plasticity. To avoid getting stuck in a boring performance where every note might be where it should be, and where everything is rhythmically correct, but the music is not alive, and becomes sterile and boring.

That’s always a danger when recording, simply because occasionally you have to repeat something. Not just because of a possibly misplayed note, but also because, say, a car has just passed by or the wind is blowing ...
... but also, say, because of a ‘rumbling’ in your stomach. That also happened to me. And the sound engineer had it so loud in his headphones that he got a real fright; it never occurred to him what that noise could be. When recording, the clavichordist cannot even think about ‘panting’ or even breathing a bit loudly.

Do you have any particularly favourite compositions from The Well-Tempered Clavier?
Not really. That is, if I should have to choose at the expense of other compositions. Sometimes, when I have to play some of the ones I’ve selected myself, I can’t decide. I’m fascinated by the two large parts. Even each of the individual compositions is a gem in itself. One could talk or write a lot about them. But it’s better to play or listen. Innumerable analyses have been published, and undoubtedly will be in the future. I can’t help thinking, however, that Johann Sebastian Bach would often smile indulgently at our many labours.

Interview by Jaroslav Tůma himself


Well Tempered Clavichord
     I have mentioned numerous times that if I had to pick a favorite work, it would surely be Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. When I was growing up, it was better known as the Well-Tempered Clavichord, even though hardly anyone knew what a clavichord was. It is a work that works well on any medium, but today I proclaim that it works best on the clavichord, at least in the hands of Jaroslav Tůma.
     Several recordings on the clavichord exist. Ralph Kirkpatrick recorded both books. Unfortunately, those two recordings are considered classics and won't go away: they should. Each book is recorded on a different instrument, each worse-sounding than the other (an intentional circular paradox). The real travesty is the performance, which I find cold, brittle, and rushed. If those recordings were my introduction the clavichord, I would flee. However, Colin Tilney recorded Book One on an original Hass instrument. It is lovely playing and a not terrible – but not great – sound. An innovation of Tilney's was performing them following the circle of fifths, rather than chromatically. This makes more harmonic sense, and is refreshing change.
     I have had Tůma's Book One for quite some time. I believe it is the single most played recording in my collection. I love the sound of Martin Kather's clavichord, which has octave strings in the bass, I like Tůma's playing of it, which is confident and expressive, and I love the way he performs each prelude and fugue: simply, honestly, and spontaneously. There are no extremes, no quirky mannerisms, just solid music making. Sadly, this recording has been impossible to get in North America, so I have been a lone voice in the wilderness, extolling its charms.
     I was excited when I heard that Book One was being re-issued, along with Book Two. I have complained before that there simply not enough recordings of Book Two on any instrument, and I believe this is the first on clavichord. I was ecstatic when my friend Martin Kather mailed me a copy – the recording is on the Arta label, not readily available in North America. However, it looks like it can be ordered directly, and if you are a lover of either the clavichord or Bach, or both!, you should order it.
     Tůma's reading of Book Two has everything I like in Book One. Although the clavichord is different in design ('after German masters in a French style'!), any differences in sound are too subtle to describe. My only complaint is over Tůma' embellishments in the Prelude in f minor. The first time I thought it was refreshing and original. Unfortunately, recordings are permanent records, and that "refreshing and original" interpretation begins to sound affected, and after a while, it can even annoy. Any annoyance is quickly dissipated by the fugue. I'll bet that in practice Tůma embellishes it differently each time he plays, as Sebastian would have. Indeed, what these recordings really capture is the feeling of sitting in a room listening to a artist simply play for himself. I would hope that each pearl sounded a little different each time, influenced by both mood and muse.

Kemer Thomson Poway, California

Further recordings by Jaroslav Tůma:

© Studio Svengali, March 2018
coded by