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Bach WTC Book 1 Prelude 1, à la Hewitt

As long as we’re conducting experiments on the familiar C major prelude…

Some years ago, Don and I heard Angela Hewitt play a marvelous concert of Bach and Messiaen. (There’s a combination!) She gave the most unusual performance of the C major prelude I’ve ever heard: very fast, very light, either a bit of pedal or just a superhuman legato (don’t remember which), and certain notes voiced to give the rapid running pattern some shape. It was almost impressionistic.

Now if there’s a right way to play this prelude, this is definitely not it. But it was really quite a marvelous treat to hear something so familiar in such a surprising new guise; if it wasn’t “right,” it sure was good!

Here is an imitation — a rather poor one, I’m afraid — of my memory of that performance:

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude 1 (in C major) à la Hewitt
Paul Cantrell, piano

Don and I both immediately ran off to get her recording of it, and were immediately disappointed: she played the piece in a completely ordinary way. It was fine; it just wasn’t at all the daring version we’d heard live. I came up with two theories about this:

  • She came up with the novel interpretation in the few years between the recording and the concert, or
  • afraid of critical reaction, she played it safe on the recording and left the risk-taking for the live performances.

I don’t know if the second theory was true here, but it’s definitely true in general: musicians don’t want to give critics anything to criticize, and thus focus first — particularly on recordings — on having no mistakes, no risks, nothing extreme, nothing wrong. The result of this is the current glut of recordings that are perfect but not very good.

To heck with that! Give me risk-taking! I’d rather hear performances that miss the mark half the time than the bland, play-it-safe perfectionism we usually get.