Two years ago Zhu Xiao-Mei recorded Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier (or, as this French disc dubs it, Le Clavier Bien Tempéré), and now gives us this two-disc set of Book One. The reason for this odd order, she says, is simply that she believes Book Two has languished besides the popularity of Book One. This ordering helps redress that balance.
Mei, now living in Paris, has a special affinity with Bach. Not long after starting her piano studies, she was caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution and found herself working in a labour camp. Music was forbidden, but she had smuggled in a copy of the WTC, and spent day after day copying it to share with her companions. This gave her an especially deep acquaintanceship with the work, which shows clearly in this recording. It is instantly a classic account, which I’ll keep alongside my András Schiff and Sviatoslav Richter. Though those have great strengths, this account is somehow more touching, as if she is able to pierce through to the essential simplicity which lies within this great work.
The recording too is flawless. Her piano is a Steinway, which allows more interpretative freedom than a period-instrument, and the engineers have caught every nuance of performance with immaculate precision. The instrument sounds resonant and full-blooded, but without a trace of plumminess, and the highest notes are bell-like in their purity.