Prelude & Fugue in A Flat Major – I think of this prelude as one of Bach's "life is very good" creations. From the opening bars, the piece is uplifting, and it continues right to the end. There is room for contemplation and nuance, depending on the speed. Gould is the fastest at about 3 minutes, has no time to develop any themes, and occupies the cellar with Roberts who is a little bit slower but quite ordinary.
Very good versions are Nikolayeva, Aldwell, Fischer, Hewitt, Schiff, and Jando. Nikolayeva has a gorgeous ending and great build-up toward the climaxes but is a little loud and overly demonstrative. Aldwell clocks in at almost 5 minutes and provides a beautiful reading, but he loses needed tension in the middle of the prelude. Fischer is on the quick side and has great climaxes and tension, but the softer passages lack impact. Hewitt employs a moderate pace in a dramatic reading which is a little lacking in nuance. Schiff is as fast as Roberts but much more expressive; he does "bang out" the ending which isn't so good. Jandó is also quick, in fact a little hurried, but his reading is lovely in any case.
Tureck, Schepkin, and Gulda are exceptional. Tureck uses a moderate pace with pin-point emphasis on tension, joy, tenderness, and the demonstrative elements of the music. Schepkin is almost as slow as Aldwell but maintains tension throughout in a gorgeous laid-back reading which works just right for me; his climaxes are excellent also. Gulda's is the best "straight-ahead" reading I could ask for: moderate tempo, great forward momentum, the best climaxes, and plenty of nuance within a tight framework.
The Fugue in A Flat Major is less reflective and serene than its partner. So, as one could guess, this piece is better suited to quick tempos and Gould's strengths than the Prelude (more on Gould later). Both pieces are similar in their expression of life's joys and rewards. Roberts plays it much as he does the Prelude – quick, glossy, and possessing much surface appeal; his version is immediately enjoyable but soon loses its allure. Schepkin's is a very special performance. It's slow-paced, beautiful, displays fantastic part playing, and has plenty of momentum. Best of all, within an irresistible musical flow, each passage is at least as stunning, individual, and interesting as the preceding one. No other version comes close to Schepkin. Gould is the fastest and very musical, but his impact recedes on additional listenings. Jandó is fast with a great bass line. Fischer is a little too harsh. Schiff is fast and loaded with events but becomes low on poetry sometimes. Hewitt's version has similarities with Schepkin's but is less inspired. Gulda is powerful throughout and could have used more variation in dynamics. Tureck is on the quick side and not as poetic as I would have expected. Nikolayeva is highly poetic, but the flow is inconsistent. Aldwell is the slowest with some beautiful passages. Overall, Schepkin is best by a wide margin, Roberts is the worst, and the others are in the middle.
Prelude & Fugue in G sharp minor – I find G sharp minor a very hard key to play in; perhaps many professional pianists do also. With most of the versions, I'd have no idea that this prelude is a masterpiece. But Jandó gives me a hint of greatness with a fast pace and powerful delivery. Then comes Tureck who puts the others to shame with a transcendent performance. Her reading (over 6 minutes) doubles the timing of Jando's, and she uses every second expertly – so tender, drama of great subtlety, infectious build-ups to climaxes, and tension precisely where I want it. Tureck's superb version is tailor made for a story from your mind, and not a short story. My story is about the loss of innocence and purity, something that hasn't yet happened to me.
Unlike with its partner, most of the pianists do very well in the Fugue in G sharp minor. This is an amazing piece of music which only Roberts does not respond well to. He has trouble with Bach's "biggies", and this fugue is definitely in that category. Roberts is all surface appeal; not one phrase or even one note enters me. Tempo differences among the versions are huge. The moderate paced performances range from over 4 minutes to almost 6 minutes. Hewitt is very quick at 3:20; Gulda's like a bullet at 2:35. At the high end, Tureck comes in at a stunning 7:53. These extreme differences have nothing to do with repeats either.
What's this fugue all about? For me, it's the "Apocalypse Aftermath" Fugue. Aldwell, in his liner notes, mentions the "discontent" of the piece which increases toward the conclusion. I've got this fugue way beyond the discontent level. It has an eerie and bleak quality right from the start, and it builds up momentum in a subtle way throughout the first half of the fugue; in the second half, eerie is taken over by a conclusive and demonstrative end to any semblance of life as we know it. Yes, there are moments of hope, but they are fleeting and stamped out by a seamless and inevitable crushing of the living world and spirit. As you can surmise, I love this piece and the theme it elicits from me. Some consider the "Black Pearl" Variation of the Goldbergs to be a journey to complete emptiness; the Fugue in G sharp minor is for me a journey to the darkest corners of one's mind, dreams, and fears. That Bach can do all this to me without any pianistic hysterics is very impressive. Of course, not all the versions greatly emphasize this theme, but I notice it quickly in every one except for Robert's. Some versions are more laid-back and reflective; they are very rewarding as well (I just have to make the mental transition). After all, there must be a lot to reflect on after the apocalypse.
Very good versions include Nikolayeva, Fischer, Aldwell, Gulda, Gould, Hewitt, and Jando. Nikolayeva's a little lower than the top level because she doesn't dig as deeply into the music as the best versions. Fischer's sound is a problem, and he's too harsh at times. Aldwell's reading is superb until the last minute or so when he starts banging too loudly on the keys. Jandó has great forward momentum but lacks a little in nuance; Gulda has the same problem, although at his fast speed it probably couldn't be avoided. Hewitt, although of quick pace, gets to the heart of the music, although she's too loud toward the end. Gould has a nice swagger to his performance, but he's a little too upbeat in the first half of the fugue.
Schiff and Schepkin deliver beautiful and highly nuanced readings with fantastic voice separation. But they can't reach Tureck whose conception is exactly my own and whose execution is flawless. Her set is worth every penny just for this performance.
Prelude & Fugue in A major – This set is much shorter than the G sharp minor. The Prelude is lyrical, tender, and life-affirming. Fischer and Gould aren't very good; Fischer is on the harsh side, inconsistent in pacing, and smudges a note badly. Gould starts off well but loses poetry along the way. Both Hewitt and Aldwell call this piece a "pastorale", but Jandó doesn't agree. He's strong in an affirmative sense and provides an infectious reading. The other excellent performance comes from Tureck as she's her usual incisive and poetic self. The other versions are fine.
The Fugue in A major is a three-voice piece where each voice enters in ascending order; these initial passages can provide ample tension in addition to beauty, and there are notes that "sigh" invitingly. Only Tureck provides a superb opening, and she continues through the piece to display a mastery of the music. She is slowest at over 2 minutes; Gulda and Aldwell are over 1:30, and the others are a little over 1 minute in length. Aldwell's version is excellent as he's great with the tension and poetry. The other excellent version, a fast one, is from Roberts. The fast-paced versions need to be exciting, and Roberts heads that field with a very uplifting performance. The remaining versions are good ones.
Tureck just keeps improving in relation to the other recordings as the survey progresses. Although not a mathematical certainty, my numbers tell me that it's highly likely that Tureck's WTC II is the best set in the survey. If only that sound was better.
Prelude & Fugue in A minor – The Prelude is a two-part invention with much swapping of the themes between the voices; chromaticism is strong and gives the music a bizarre quality as if the laws of nature have been suspended. I liken it to a world gone topsy-turvy (physically and emotionally). Gulda, Hewitt, Fischer, Gould, and Schepkin are quick with high priority on momentum; the remainder are slow-paced and highly poetic. Among the faster versions, Gulda is best; he's powerful and greatly highlights the chromaticism. His version most lets you know that everything is "crazy". Fischer has problems – he sounds hurried and his emotional quotient is low. Among the slower versions, Schiff is exceptional; his poetry and part playing are superb. Nikolayeva is a little deficient with limited dynamics and a soft-focused reading throughout.
The three-voice Fugue in A minor is a virtuoso piece which Hewitt calls "the wildest and most brilliant Fugue of the 48". That may or not be true, but I'm not particularly taken with the music, especially in Hewitt's hands. She is harsh, loud, and disjointed. Roberts is "fussy" and loses momentum frequently. The other versions are fine.
Gould has been losing some points in the latter half of Book II. His tempos are increasingly speedy, and his poetry is less evident. Gulda, however, has been a model of consistency in providing straight-ahead and powerful interpretations. Now and then he sounds a little lacking in poetry, but most of his performances are highly effective and musical. Increasingly, I'm finding that I'm at odds with the conceptions that Hewitt holds dear; her descriptions of each prelude and fugue in the liner notes are sounding quite alien to me. As an example, she frequently states that a particular piece should not be played slowly as its flow would be destroyed; then, someone like Aldwell plays the piece slowly with no damage to the music's flow.
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.