This is a superb recording of the Two-Part and Sinfonias (Three-Part Inventions) of Johann Sebastian Bach. Kenneth Gilbert is a wonderful interpreter of Bach's keyboard music and in this recording plays an instrument made in 1671 by Jan Couchet that was subsequently enlarged in 1778. The Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias consist of 15 parts; they were written as technical exercises and as composition demonstration pieces originally for his son Wilhelm Friedemann. The various pieces were probably written separately and were gathered together by Bach in major/minor key sequence and published in 1723. The recording is clear and well balanced. Kenneth Gilbert plays beautifully; the music is lively without being ostentatious.
The Art of Fugue or 'complete practical fugal work', as C. P. E. Bach described his father's giant contrapuntal achievement, is well represented in the current recording catalogue. The approaches to it vary considerably with performances on solo keyboard—harpsichord and organ—and mixed ensembles with markedly different shades of instrument colour. Varied too, is the sequence in which the performers play the fugal parts which comprise the whole. Some complete the final fugue, some do not; some find a place for all the pieces included in the posthumous original edition of 1751, others have given reasons for omitting those which seem not to play a directly relevant part in Bach's scheme. Kenneth Gilbert leads us down another fascinating path his performance on a solo harpsichord follows not the 1751 printed edition but Bach's own autograph material differing from the other both in content and layout.
In a way, this is the best possible version of the WTC to someone who is looking for a balanced, deep and totally honest version. The harpsichord is a beautiful Flemish-French (recent research shows it is rather more French than Flemish) harpsichord (Gilbert's own) that has a marvelous sound: rich and deep, and yet bright and clear. Professor Gilbert's version is as new now as it was when it was released. It is totally respectful of the music (you won't find eccentricities, here, just the music but superlatively played). He has a very cantabile sense of the music - every voice is respected - and his Bach is phrased almost as a dance, rather than as gesturing. He seems to belie Leonhardt, when the Dutch says that the piano was meant to sing and the harpsichord to speak; in Gilbert's hands, it really sings). Do not expect strong chords, abrupt contrasts or anything like that. Gilbert's version is for the connoisseur rather than the Fireworks enthusiast. If you examine, in detail, the way he plays, you will find that every voice is subtly sung, that the amount of work and serious thought he lavished into Bach's music is prodigious.
Although not quite at the level of profundity of his teacher Gustav Leonhardt's recording, Kenneth Gilbert's 1983 recording of Book 1 of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier does have a style and polish that Leonhardt's too often lacked. Thus, while Leonhardt goes further into some of the minor-key fugues to find intellectual and spiritual depths that Gilbert does not plumb, Gilbert's playing is so much more elegant and graceful than Leonhardt's that it is difficult to choose between them. For listeners who approach The Well-Tempered Clavier as a volume of virtuoso works whose success depends on the effortless refinement of the player, the Gilbert, with its superbly remastered sound, will be the one to get. For listeners who approach The Well-Tempered Clavier as a volume of prayers written as preludes and fugues, the Leonhardt will be preferable. Both are superb and both belong in any Bach collection.