J. S. Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier Book One

Floral design

Colin Booth harpsichord
121:43 (2 CDs)
Soundboard SBCD218

Colin Booth is an exceptional musician: he has been making harpsichords for at least 45 years; he has written an indispensible book Did Bach Really Mean That? investigating the unwritten assumptions on which much performance practice depends, together with a number of scholarly articles; and he has made a number of recordings including the Goldberg Variations, a fine CD of Byrd (reviewed recently by Richard Turbet in EMR), Mattheson Harmony’s Monument, Buxtehude, Croft, Purcell and Couperin amongst others.

As is right the bulk of the 22 page stiff covered booklet which forms the excellent case for the two CDs is taken up by a well-argued essay on what Wohltemperierte means in the context of the 48, of which volume one was already in circulation amongst pupils and practitioners by 1722 while the second part seems not to have been available till about two decades later. What temperament will retain the sense of differentiation between the keys, which making them tolerably playable? In the end, he settles for Kirnberger III, and certainly the results seem to justify that choice. This is a wonderful example of what a serious booklet can be, and I hope it has wide circulation.

But it is the playing that counts. And I was bowled over. First, the sound. Colin Booth plays on an instrument that he made in 2016. ‘With an extension of the compass it is based on the design of an original instrument signed Nicholas Celini 1661, purchased and restored by Colin during 2013.’ It seems to have been built by aprovincial Italian maker, working in Narbonne. Strung in brass, it has a beautiful singing tone and gives great clarity to the part-writing. He only uses the 8’ ranks (there is a 4’ on the lower keyboard) but alone and in combination these provide both a sonorous richness and weight while allowing a degree of finesse to shine through.

His fingerwork is elegant, ornaments well-considered and never obtrusive, and the absence of that percussive brittle clatter we so often experience makes the whole experience of listening to two CDs straight through a real pleasure. Listen to how he articulates the subject in the B-flat fugue (2.18) where there is a studied ambivalence in how he shapes the grouping of the semi-quavers, or the final B minor fugue, where the wandering subject introduces us to the continuingly unfolding shifts in the tonality: here each phrase in this monumental construction builds upon what has gone before but you are sure that the performer will guide you home. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the most congenial playing I have heard of this remarkable set of pieces. The next volume is due for release this coming year. You will need to order from ColinBooth direct via his website – easily accessible at www.colinbooth.co.uk, where you will find a Christmas offer of three for the price of two.

David Stancliffe