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Briefly Noted: Andreas Staier completes Well-Tempered Clavier Set

available at Amazon
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1, A. Staier

(released on January 6, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902680.81 | 109'13"

available at Amazon
Vol. 2
It was long past time to check in with what Andreas Staier has been up to recently. The esteemed German specialist in historical keyboards went back to recording Bach, with a two-release set of the complete preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier. He began with the more substantial second volume, released in 2021, leaving the earlier volume, the kernel of Bach's monumental collection, for now. Uniting the set is Staier's choice of instrument, a modern one built in Paris by Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal in 2004, modeled on a harpsichord made by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass in Hamburg in 1734, right between the appearances of Bach's two volumes.

In Staier's hands, this harpsichord belies the myth of the instrument as monotonous in sound. In both volumes, Staier uses the many registration possibilities to create a bewildering range of textures. The original Hass instrument, now in the collection of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels (I think), is a bit of a monster, a double-manual harpsichord with a disposition combining a 16', double 8', and 4' choir of strings. There is also a lute stop, as well as buff stops on the lower manual's 8' and 4'. (A few years later, Hass built an even larger harpsichord, with five choirs of strings controlled by three manuals, thought to be the largest original harpsichord of the period and the only historical harpsichord with three manuals.)

German harpsichords like this one can have a dozen or more possible registration combinations, and Staier seems to use them all. Some of the preludes and fugues stand out for their light sound, like the D#/E-flat minor pairing, giving an understated finish to the incredible complexity of this very long fugue, complete with tortured chromatic twists. (Only the final fugue of Book 1, in B minor, is longer.) Other pairings, using the big sets of strings, have a more orchestral sound, almost like a Busoni transcription of Bach with all the parallel octaves. The buff stops come in handy for a couple delicate pieces: one of these softened stops buzzes with a reedy twang like a Nasalzug, heard in the E major and F# major preludes. Staier engages the harp stop only on the very first prelude, the almost too-famous C major, to novel effect (also on the C# major prelude in Book 2). Staier's touch is not uniformly fluid, with some preludes having more tiny inconsistencies than others, but the variety of connections in the playing is always diverting.

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