Kimiko Ishizaka's Open Well Tempered Klavier

Just in time for Bach's 330th birthday this weekend, I got a review copy of the new "Open" Well Tempered Klavier from Kimiko Ishizaka. This recording is as interesting socially as it is musically. In a joint effort with BösendorferMusescore, and Teldex Studio in Berlin, pianist Kimiko Ishizaka raised money from more than 1000 backers on kickstarter to produce the world's first "Open Source" version of the famous work. Most people are familiar with the concept of open source in computers: an online community collaborates to build software that is available to everyone for free, to use and modify as they like. But how does that translate into music? And isn't everything free only worth what you paid for it?

Taken just as a recording, the Open Well Tempered Klavier is a good one: this is a well-produced recording of an international artist in an excellent studio, available in audiophile-quality format. That places it in a special category automatically.  As their press materials are quick to point out however, the Open Well Tempered Klavier is more than just a free recording. It is also a highly accurate version of the score, performance notes from the artist, and all of the unprocessed source tracks used to make the recording. All of it is made available online under a Creative Commons License, so anyone can use these materials any way they like. This is a big deal for professional musicians, who often shell out significant money for quality scores, recordings, or samples. High quality source material is an expensive resource for classical musicians; Kimiko is making a substantial contribution to the music world with this project.

The first thing you need to know about this recording, is to try and clear out any distractions before you even start. Kimiko's playing demands your complete attention; it forces you to sit down and just listen with every ounce of your focus. I found myself unreasonably frustrated with even minor distractions.  I almost threw my phone across the room when it dared to buzz with a message, interrupting Prelude 19. I ended up stopping partway through to go  download the full-quality FLAC version and get out my best headphones. That only made it worse - now I had to listen with her score in front of me, because there is simply too much detail here to enjoy with my ears alone.  This is not a recording that suffers casual listening.

This recording displays every bit of the Bachian sensitivity we've come to expect from Kimiko from her last album (the similarly "Open" Goldberg Variations). The Goldberg impressed with how she made a contemporary piano take on the percussive characteristics of a harpsichord, and how intentionally she decides on details of interpretation, such as Bach's choices in barring, tieing, or combining notes. Those qualities are also present in these recordings (as far as I can tell she never once touches a pedal), but this time it is accompanied with a sensitivity and emotiveness of touch one normally hears only in Romantic music. She takes full advantage of the freedom available in the preludes, and brings that voice into each paired fugue without ever sacrificing authenticity. A great example comes early in the book, in Prelude and Fugue 4. The expressivity in the Prelude is something I would expect from late Mozart or early Beethoven, mournful and beautiful. Those qualities endure throughout the piece, in choices of voicing and subtle pulls and pushes of rhythm. Yet the entire time you hear Bach's distinctive sound in her finger technique and the sheer horizontality of the lines. Harmonies are always two voices moving in parallel rather than a united sound. This contrast serves the pieces well; the unmistakeable structure of Bach imparts a strong framework, and the expression keeps you on the edge of your seat. The combination of emotion and structure builds to a fantastic climax at the end of the Fugue, when I found myself pumping my fist and cheering out loud.

I believe in Bach as a baroque badass, a rock star of a composer, musician, and human being who destroyed the expectations of the music industry of his time. I always loved the Glenn Gould recordings because of Gould's emotional style, but found them frustrating in their lack of fidelity to the source material. Bach was a badass on his own, there's no need to re-compose his work! What I love about the Open WTC is the marriage of these two aspects of the composer. We clearly hear the structure and form that are so important to Bach in general, and to this work in particular. At the same time we hear the expression and emotive aspect in the music, the part that made Bach into rock star he was. A great example of this balance is in Prelude 10, which I'm used to hearing played as a facile excercise. Kimiko's performance starts from a playful reading of the opening theme, and transitions into a simply amazing Presto that is so "rock star", it might as well be concluded by smashing a guitar and biting the head off a bat.

Like many reviewers, I always try to offer a balance of positive and negative commentary in my writing. That's quite difficult for me in this recording. There are places where I'd like to hear Kimiko take more license with the material, but I'm not certain that it would work. A large part of the power of this recording comes in that delicate balance of tradition and rock star emotion, and it's clear that very few details in this recording are left to chance.

This is not a recording to put on in the background. It is not a recording to leave in the middle of the enormous pile of interpretations of the Well Tempered Klavier. This is a recording to change your perception of the Well Tempered Klavier. It's a recording to hear on the edge of your seat, to bop your head to. It's a recording to tell your neighbors and friends about. For me, this was a rock star quality recording. I can't wait for book two.