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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869

Edward Parmentier, harpsichord
Recorded Bethel United Church of Christ, Bethel, Michigan
Released October 2004
Wildboar WLBRO401 2CDs 61:31 + 64:58
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To those who value historically informed performance practices, Edward Parmentier is a beacon of light on Bach's sound world. Professor of Harpsichord and Director of Early Music ensembles at the University of Michigan, Parmentier has impeccable credentials further established through his studies with Albert Fuller and Gustav Leonhardt. Parmentier records frequently for the Wildboar label, with previous discs including Bach's Toccatas/Partitas/English Suites as well as recordings of the music of Scarlatti, Corelli, and the French Baroque masters. From my attendance on the Bach Recordings website, it is clear that serious Bach enthusiasts consider Parmentier one of the leading Bach authorities and performing artists in the United States.

Parmentier's recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier have been keenly anticipated, and I am pleased to report that they include a number of outstanding features. 'Pristine Bach' is always a welcome element, and I've not heard a more immaculate account than Parmentier's. Adding to this effect is the wonderful detail in the readings as Parmentier allows us to explore every architectural element, thereby giving us the opportunity to break the music down into its smallest components, then build it up to its magnificent sweep and inevitability. Another fantastic feature is the balance among voices that Parmentier achieves. You will not hear another recording where this balance is as perfect as Parmentier's. Other prevalent aspects of the performances are judiciously placed hesitations, a full display of the unbridled joy in Bach's music, and a rather slow pacing that further enhances the scope of detail.

Unfortunately, Parmentier's performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier displays the same reservations I have had concerning his earlier Bach recordings for Wildboar. He does not appear to give much priority to the excitement and drive of Bach's music, preferring to emphasize the balance and detail of Bach's contrapuntal lines as well as the overall architecture.

My major reservation concerns a restraint on Parmentier's part concerning emotional intensity. This restraint permeates his interpretations and is most noticeable in the angst-ridden pieces including the Prelude in C Sharp minor, Fugue in E Flat minor, Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Fugue in G Sharp minor, and the Prelude and Fugue in B Flat minor. These works present a bleak and austere severity that is then set against Bach's rays of light; the contrast can be transcendent, but only if the severity is very intense. This is where I find Parmentier's set not among the most rewarding on the market.

Don's Conclusions: A superb set except for the reservations noted above. Parmentier offers us a level of detail and balance of voices not found on any other recordings. I do recommend that readers investigate the interpretations of Glen Wilson on Teldec, Gustav Leonhardt on EMI, and Kenneth Gilbert on Archiv; these three sets better convey the intensity of Bach's music. Concerning the sonics, I couldn't ask for a more flattering soundstage than the one provided by Wildboar. It is crisp, clear, and perfectly suited to Parmentier's detailed approach. His harpsichord of choice was constructed by Keith Hill in 1987.

By the way, Parmentier's Prelude and Fugue in D Major deserves special mention. The Prelude, built on continuous semi-quavers and a staccato bass line, is bright and lively music that Parmentier plays in a robust and joyous fashion. Its fugal partner is heroic music in the form of a French Overture; Parmentier plays it quite slowly which allows all the delicious detail to come forth. The D Major exhibits most of Parmentier's interpretive strengths and would be an excellent sampling for readers to use in considering acquisition of the set. As for myself, I have great respect for Parmentier's performances, but I can't report that my affection for them is strong.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz