Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I in its entirety at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, as part of a U.S. tour to promote his recent recording of the same. No classical keyboard player can escape learning some of Book I, but few can play the entire thing from start to finish in recital at near recording studio quality. From the opening two sets of preludes and fugues, however, it was clear that while Aimard possesses the technical skill to perform this music, he lacks some style.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve

Fugues may seem as if it is nothing but a series of imitative entrances, though there’s a great deal of nuance and irregularity in each one. But Aimard often failed to notice their subtleties. For example, in Fugue no. 1 in C major, the piece comes to a harmonic close four measures before the melodic ideas do. What's more, few chromatic notes fool us into thinking we’re no longer in the home key of C major! Aimard’s fingers marched right through to the end of the piece, stepping over these important details.

Prelude no. 2 in C minor shows us that preludes are no mere flurry of “free-flowing melodic ideas,” as the program notes suggest. But Aimard did not bring certain subtle contrasts into relief. In Prelude no. 2, several contrasting tempi are marked in the score. But as in Fugue no. 1, Aimard did not make it clear why these abrupt shifts occur. In the C sharp major prelude that followed, Aimard’s technique sparkled, though again he failed to bring some of the changes in texture and register out until the final phrases, when they are most obvious. 

In many pieces, Aimard's tempi were a bit too brisk for his own good. If anything, you would want to take things a few clicks slower on the piano to account for the instrument’s heavier touch and tone. Aimard successfully played pieces like the C sharp major Fugue at break-neck speed. In others, like the G major Prelude and Fugue, he was tripping over himself and the music.

When Aimard did settle into more proper tempi – for the music, for him, and for the particular instrument he was using – sometimes he showed lack of understanding of the melodic ideas. In the D minor and A major fugues, Aimard’s phrasing was flippantly staccato. His mannered trills in the Prelude in G minor were a bold choice, though ultimately sounded out of place. 

Aimard's performance had some nice moments. His Prelude in E flat minor was especially stirring. His sound was as full and warm as an entire chamber ensemble. At once elegant, erotic and morose, Aimard captured all of the piece's subtle colors marvelously. Here, he displayed an understanding of Baroque rhetoric absent from his interpretation of many of the other pieces in this collection.

I do not mean to compare Aimard to other pianists, or even to harpsichordists. The music speaks differently to different musicians, and even differently to the same musician over time. There’s no right way to play it. Aimard successfully scaled Bach’s mountainous Well-Tempered Clavier. But to do it again, and in style, he will need to climb other towering landmarks of baroque keyboard literature. Sometimes Bach sings like Rameau, or dances like Scarlatti.

To understand the variety of the Well-Tempered Clavier, one has to develop an ear for when Bach is being Bach, when he is aping his contemporaries, and what styles and genres he deploys. Once you speak the language, the rhetoric becomes clear. Then, you can begin to speak the language like an actor. Baroque music is dramatic above all else. Even when we’re not in the theater, the music brings the theater to us. I hope to hear Aimard turn back to Bach later in his career as his relationship to other 18th century keyboard literature deepens.