Today I want to talk of tempi; one of the many things seldom if ever marked in Bach’s actual manuscripts.
In the case of the suites — for solo instrument with or without keyboard accompaniment, for chamber group, or for the small orchestras of the period — we sort of know the tempi: suites are sets of separate movements, perhaps as many as a dozen of them, each based on a popular dance of the period, and in an order dictated by convention. We know, even if Bach hasn’t written it at the top, that next comes, say, a sarabande, and a sarabande is very slow and stately. A gigue — jig —is fastish, jolly and bouncy. And a menuet or minuet, in triple time, is somewhere between staid and sprightly.
But what about the great keyboard works, not usually based on dances? The two- and three-part inventions, and the huge set of preludes and fugues known as the forty-eight? These are the basic classics of the keyboard repertoire and we would like to know — should we play this or that one quickly or slowly?
In my opinion — and it’s not based entirely on my own lack of keyboard dexterity (I’m working on it) — all the recordings take them too fast, especially the preludes. Everyone positively gallops through the D major prelude from book one of the forty-eight, but if you take it slowly you can bring out the sheer lyrical beauty of the perpetuum mobile melody with its falling sevenths; a beauty that is lost when the thing is played at breakneck speed. Besides, if you take it fast, you’re going to find yourself in trouble in the last few bars, where the note values are halved; in effect a doubling of tempo.
What I’d like to hear is a recording of the whole double set, taken really slowly. True, it would probably need four CDs instead of the usual two — (that couldn’t be the reason, could it? Could it?) — but it would be well worth it.