Bach with Muscles Comes to Somerset – a Memorable ‘48’ from Roger Woodward

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book 1: Roger Woodward (piano) The Woodard Room, Kings College, Taunton, Somerset, 2.10.2011 (BK)

There is decent Bach piano playing, even very good Bach piano playing and then there is Roger Woodward’s Bach piano playing. When reviewing Mr Woodward’s recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2 for MusicWeb International in March 2010, my colleague Dominy Clements said of it;

 ‘Even without these superb recordings, this release would be worth the asking price just for the extensive two-part booklet notes by Roger Woodward, In Search of a Performance Practice, and those autograph facsimiles of both books. These are the kinds of CD releases which you feel you should bequeath separately in your will, such is the feel of worth and value they have. Is Roger Woodward’s well considered Well-Tempered Clavier perfect? I would dispute that there is any such thing, but nothing in this recording has made me go ‘?’ and most if not almost all of it has been a case of just absorbing absolute and easy splendour. For the first time in nearly 30 years I am faced with a conversion: the next time I am asked which recording of this music I want to take with me onto my desert island, I won’t instantly say Sviatoslav Richter and I might not even mention him at all.’

This is some accolade and yet I find myself, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of  Glenn Gould’s way with this music for even longer than 30 years,  bound to agree with its sentiments wholeheartedly. Gould’s eccentricities aside  – although personally I have always found the humming and occasional liberties with the score more endearing than annoying – his recordings remain compelling simply because they forced a new view of how Bach’s keyboard music could or should sound on generations of grateful listeners.  Only time will tell if Roger Woodward’s Bach will endure so solidly, of course, but on the strength of this interpretation, the odds do seem stacked in his favour.

The apposite word, I think, is muscular. Even on the Kings College Yamaha piano, a decent though rather limited instrument, Roger Woodward’s playing was an essay in controlled power. Better still however, every note in the performance was also deeply thoughtful and compelled attention right from the opening of the C major prelude  –  what on  earth possessed Gounod to commit his monstrosity, I wonder? –  through to the end of  BWV 869.   I do not remember another performance in which my attention was drawn so continuously to the architecture of the music as it was here. Yes, new and hitherto unnoticed details were abundant that’s for sure, but additionally the music felt perfectly balanced between ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ moods at every turn. It seemed to me that no aspect of this extraordinary music had been anything other than considered supremely carefully so  that  the next words that spring  to mind about this performance are simply ‘masterfully authoritative.’  Somerset, not usually a place renowned for truly great musical experiences, was genuinely privileged to have Roger Woodward perform there: how sad then that less than fifty people understood that.


Bill Kenny