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Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier / New Classical Tracks

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Listen to Julie Amacher's New Classical Tracks interview. New Classical Tracks is Syndicated airing Nationally on PRI: Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio.   READ THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW

Most of the people I know who truly idolize and understand the music of J.S. Bach are well-trained musicians. They've studied the composer and his works, and remain in awe of his ability to create something so beautiful and so complex. If you're not a musician, or even if you are, perhaps you're a bit intimidated by the genius of Bach? I was - at least until recently, when I sat quietly and listened to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, performed by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Perhaps it's because Aimard took a lengthy sabbatical from touring to spend seven months preparing these works. Perhaps that careful preparation has given one of the most iconic works in Western art an even greater sense of wondrous beauty. "It seemed to me that this was the right music for this moment," Pierre explains, "so I needed to have a feeling that for each of these short pieces, I could give time for absorbing the polyphony, for feeling close to the expression, for breathing the right way, for speaking the right way."

Bach wrote the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavierin 1722, following his purchase of a new harpsichord. In his collection, he composed a prelude and fugue in each of the major and minor keys - not just the familiar keys such as C Major. The 24 pieces span a wide range of moods, and Bach used them as a learning tool for his students. Pierre-Laurent Aimard says even today their educational value cannot be underestimated.

"He teaches the musicians to not just be better instrumentalists but to be better musicians in general," Pierre says. "Because there is all kinds of music in the cycle and Bach is such a born pedagogue that we learn at any moment. Probably he was happy to learn himself from his own method. But he never stopped doing that. Because with 'Art of Fugue,' that is the top, or summit, of contrapuntal techniques. He makes also the pedagogical cycle. So this was somebody who loved probably to learn and teach all his life."

Pierre-Laurent Aimard learned a great deal about himself and about his playing during his time away from the concert stage. It gave him more time to think, and to breathe. "It seems to me that I play with more breath, with more confidence, maybe it's more natural and I had the feeling that I had a better relationship with the pieces I play," he says. "Maybe less frightened, if I can say so. But yes - more confidence to serve them in the right way."

That increased confidence Pierre adds, doesn't necessarily mean every note will be perfect. "Well, I always feel there are infinite ways to make mistakes playing this music," he admits. "Stylistic mistake: well, my phrase sounded like a Romantic phrase and not a Baroque phrase. Or the polyphony: the line was not clear at this moment. Or then, I missed this modulation, then I missed an important moment in this piece. Or the phrasing was not natural or convincing enough.

"So, you try and you try to be guided by the music itself, because the music is so rich, so strong, that it helps you all the time. I think the music shows you the way to be better."

Pierre-Laurent Aimard spent seven months exploring the wondrous beauty of Bach's first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Along the way he also discovered that each one of these little masterpieces is now a personal favorite. "Because each of them corresponds to a need at a certain moment in life," Pierre says. "One is more spiritual, the other is more dancing, the other one is full of energy, the next one is meditative, another one is intimate, then another one explodes with joy. So there is everything that you need to feel and to express in life, in general. In this kind of universe, you always find something that you really need and Bach shows the incredible richness of this world and of mankind, somewhere."