For British harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock intuition plays a central role in music making. He channels the formidable combination of instinctive understanding and in-depth knowledge of the scores into his first ever recording of Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, set for international release by Deutsche Grammophon on 10 April 2020.
Pinnock, now 73, is not only renowned worldwide as both conductor and harpsichord virtuoso, but is revered as one of the pioneers of historically informed performance practice. He founded The English Concert in 1972 and together they spearheaded the revival of Early Music performance on period instruments. Pinnock directed The English Concert for over thirty years, during which time they made many highly acclaimed recordings for DG/Archiv Produktion, highlights including Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
To celebrate the riches of this extensive recorded legacy, Pinnock has begun making a new videoblog, My Baroque, in which he discusses everything from “Music and Intuition” to his thoughts on the enduring spiritual and dramatic qualities of Messiah.
The latest additions to My Baroque include several videos about Pinnock’s new album for the Yellow Label in which he talks about his decision to record the twenty-four preludes and fugues of Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the choice of instrument, and issues surrounding pitch and temperament.
“My journey with The Well-Tempered Clavier has been life-long,” he recalls. “I first encountered it at about 12 years old … A few years later, I heard all the preludes and fugues played on the piano on the radio, and I was hooked. In my 20s I myself recorded some preludes and fugues for radio broadcast, and I knew then that one day I would play them all. The mountain seemed insurmountable, however … How could I possibly delve into the density of some of those fugues, let alone understand them?”
Pinnock climbed that mountain helped by the realisation that Bach himself took great delight not only in his compositional skill but also in his prowess as a keyboard player. Bach, he explains, demonstrates his mastery of fugue and inventive genius with lightness as well as gravity. “The range of this book is very wide, comprising informal music which can delight a child or casual listener, and formal music in which Bach could explore the far reaches of his mind and inspiration in composition. This is his richness: informal and formal, traditional and innovative, reaching out to touch both earth and heaven.”
The title page of The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I outlines the work’s purpose: it was created for the “profit and use of musical young people who are curious to learn, and also as a special pastime for those already skilled in this study”. Following reports of Bach’s own intuitive approach to tuning which allowed an instrument to be used in all keys, Trevor Pinnock adopts a “well-tempered” unequal temperament which sounds well in all keys but retains some variation of key colour.
For his recording, he chose a trusted companion – a copy of a harpsichord by the Franco-German builder Henri Hemsch tuned to the low pitch prevalent in Köthen during Bach’s time there and which, Pinnock says, “has a unique voice which combines a singing quality with enough clarity to allow Bach’s part-writing to shine”.