Although George Lepauw recorded Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in 2017 for both film and CD release, my review solely concerns the audio component. When a complete Well-Tempered Clavier cycle spills over onto five CDs rather than the usual three or four, you can expect either slow tempos or moderate tempos with ample variation. That’s precisely the case with Lepauw’s affetuoso Bach playing.
Right off the bat you’ll notice a Book I C major Prelude chock full of rubatos, breath marks, and caesuras. Time stands still for Lepauw’s super-slow-motion Book I C-sharp minor Prelude, while the pianist bends the toccata-like D major Prelude to his lyrical will, yet plays the D minor Prelude quickly and crisply. Book I’s E-flat Fugue also features curvaceous agogics, but the D-sharp minor Fugue sings out in long alla breve lines. Interestingly, Lepauw’s tempo modifications and varied articulations give fresh shape and drama to the A minor Fugue, minimizing its tendency to sound endlessly episodic in other hands.
Book II similarly upends one’s expectations. Tempo-wise, the ruminative C-sharp major Prelude and its brisk companion Fugue arithmetically connect. The heavily inflected repeated notes in the D-sharp minor Fugue’s subject convey a convincing vocal intensity that proves rather overwrought in the E major Prelude. Lepauw’s slow and tender readings of the F-sharp major and G minor Preludes considerably soften the swagger of their dotted rhythm motives. Both the A-flat major and G-sharp pairings feature drawn out Preludes and animated Fugues; you’d normally anticipate the opposite.
Collectors familiar with the subjective, Romantically tinged 5-CD WTC cycles by Roger Woodward and Andrei Vieru will find Lepauw’s likeminded conceptions more consistently thought out and sustained, as well as sonically superior. Consider Lepauw a fascinating antipode to the straightforward and stylistically grounded Schiff, Hewitt, Ashkenazy, and Koroliov references, with the compelling individuality of Niklas Sivelöv’s extraordinary “48” splitting the difference.