Christophe Rousset, a remarkable harpsichordist and conductor who occupies a place of high honor among Baroque-music interpreters, scores a triumph with this magisterial reading of one of the pinnacles of keyboard literature. Bach had laid out the plan in 1722 in Book One of his Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, or Well-Tempered Clavier: 24 prelude-and-fugue dyads that plumb the possibilities of fugal composition in the complete array of keys rendered playable through recently perfected tuning systems. Twenty years later he completed Book Two, which repeats that layout but, as one would expect from a project of Bach’s final decade, digs still deeper into the realm of musical intellect. One rarely encounters here the giddiness that is so adorable in Book One, but Book Two rewards through its distinct character. Its generally longer pieces reach farther in their modulation and chromaticism, and the fugues display a previously untouched breadth of imagination and bravery, the whole yielding a sense of intense braininess tinged with melancholy. Rousset recorded the collection in the Dauphin’s Apartment of the Château de Versailles, playing a magnificent harpsichord built in 1628 by the Antwerp instrument-maker Joannes Ruckers and enlarged in 1706 by the Frenchman Nicolas Blanchet. Its bright, plangent, bracing tone may take some getting used to, but it adds further edge to Rousset’s interpretations, which are opinionated, well-argued, and elegantly finessed.
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