John Butt - Bach WTC - Early Music Review

I should start by saying that John Butt's performance of the first Prelude of Book I is just as I envisage it, since this seems to have been a sticking point for a number of reviews that have so far appeared. For me the flexibility of tempo shown in this prelude and elsewhere is just what this music needs and foregrounds the improvisatory quality of many of these preludes, relating them to the Italian toccata or French prelude traditions. Butt knows his Bach, and the music that Bach would have known, and is able to bring the appropriate stylistic nuance to each piece, adding ornaments in a convincing way. These are fast performances, too much so in some cases, I would say; the preludes can be made to seem a bit inconsequential at times. There are places where the speeding up, in itself convincing, is not compensated for by subsequent relaxation of the tempo. But the overall effect is exhilarating and Butt's formidable technique means that one is made very aware of the keyboard virtuosity for which Bach was known, just as much as for the compositional complexity of the fugues. Once one gets used to the fast tempi, the logic of the interpretations comes through dearly. Butt plays on Bruce Kennedy's copy of a Mietke of 1719, owned by the Dunedin Consort. It provides a good variety of registrations though not the brightest of sounds. The recording is, as one would expect from Linn, expertly done and closely miked. Butt plays the versions thought by scholars to have been Bach's final thoughts. In the liner notes he writes quite a bit about tempo relationships between Prelude and Fugue, though doesn't reach any particularly strong conclusions. One case where the tempo does change during the piece is the C sharp major Prelude from Book II. Here Butt does a logical move from crotchet in duple time to dotted quaver in triple, though it does take a bit of time to settle down. This recording will not suit everyone and one would probably want another, more standard, version in one's possessions as well but, as the overarching vision of these two great collections from a player immersed in the music of Bach, it can be highly recommended. 

Early Music Review
01 February 2015