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David Louie; Photo Credit: Nicola Betts

Why do people call the enhanced ability to learn that comes from listening to classical music the Mozart effect? Wouldn't it be more believable if we called it the Bach effect or even the fugue effect? Very little sharpens the mind as well as a fugue. My graduate advisor wrote fugues during department meetings. My wife practised a French technique that let her track the harmonic implications as she composed. I myself have been negligent in my fugue fitness, but I made up for it today at the masterful performance by harpsichordist David Louie of all twenty-four preludes and fugues in Book One of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier.

Well tempered does not refer to modern, equal temperament. The tuning of keyboards at the time was a compromise between wanting to hear pure intervals and needing the instrument to play in tune in different keys. As the tuner went around the circle of fifths, the perfect fifths were shortened (tempered) to make the triads and other keys somewhat more in tune. This conflict comes to a head in Bach's collection because all major and minor keys are needed. The solution was one in which most intervals were nearly pure and most keys nearly in tune. 

The keyboard, with this compromise tuning, is well tempered, and the different keys have a different character depending on how far they are away from the starting point. C major itself has the purest intervals and triads. David Louie made the first prelude ring sweetly and truly. The character of the key of G sharp minor is completely different for Bach, because that key has more notes that are quite out of tune, the so-called wolf tones, and indeed that prelude and fugue sounded anxious, ill at ease.

Many of us experienced Bach’s preludes and fugues first on the piano. On a harpsichord the strings are plucked by a quill, and the sound dies quickly. To sustain, the player must choose the right tempo, the best specific moment to play, and also hold the notes so that they are not stopped by dampers. Ornamentation is also a factor. Throughout the afternoon Louie accomplished this, garnering a rich sound from the instrument, a modern replica of one designed in 1769.  

Under Louie the preludes were virtuosic and the fugues well presented. Many of the pairs were delightful. I especially enjoyed the prelude and fugue in B-flat major. The scales and arpeggios of the prelude raced like the wind. The opening of the prelude sounded like precious gem stones. The phrasing of the fugue was like the bowing of a stringed instrument.

I thought that the Fugue in G minor could have been slower. The head of that fugue comes from a cantata Bach wrote in 1709, the section ‘Es ist der alte Bund’ (It is the old law, man you must die). If the tempo is too fast, the connection to the cantata is missed. On the other hand, the nature of the instrument and the sound also dictate the tempo.

All in all it was an excellent afternoon of preludes and fugues. And the Bach effect? I think I am ready to start learning another language, or some new repertoire, and maybe I will try to teach my cats to play a two-part invention. Many thanks to David Louie for playing this demanding program!

Next in this series is Johann Strauss: Die Fledermaus on March 14th in Koerner Hall.

A Good Temperament: David Louie, Mazzoleni Masters Series

​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON March 11th 2018