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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book I from Robert Levin

Close to a year ago, I wrote a highly favorable review of Robert Levin's set of Bach's WTC Book II. I found that his use of organ, clavichord, harpsichord, and fortepiano made for very interesting and diverse listening. Also, there was much variety in his performing style.

For some reason, my local record store didn't carry Levin's Book I until a few weeks ago. This set is also on Hänssler, and the catalog number is 92.116. Unlike with Book II, Levin restricts himself to three different instrument types, dispensing with the fortepiano. I'm a little disappointed with that decision. However, the Book I performances are very fine, although more mainstream than Levin's Book II readings.

Getting right down to basics, I count 19 preludes & fugues where Levin's performances are among the best. That compares with 25 for the Tureck set which I consider the best on the market. However, digging a little deeper, none of Levin's 19 readings is the absolute best, whereas Tureck has many magical performances which no other recording artist matches.

Levin's 19 outstanding performances are:

C major Fugue – Hypnotic with superb momentum. C sharp minor Fugue – Majestic interpretation. D Major Prelude – Joy leaps out from the speakers. D Major Fugue – Great sense of ceremony. D minor Prelude – Exciting and tense. E Flat Major Prelude – Irresistible urgency. E Major Prelude - Exquisite performance with wonderful legato flow. F sharp major Prelude - Supreme playfulness. F sharp major Fugue – Great urgency and very uplifting. F sharp minor Prelude – Thrilling. F sharp minor Fugue – Intense foreboding. G major Prelude – Thrilling race between two oppositional forces, and both fall off the cliff. G minor Prelude – Dripping with melancholy. G minor Fugue – Fantastic rhythm & tension. A Flat Major Prelude – Exciting and joyful. G sharp minor Prelude – Delectable contrast between intense inner pain and the full satisfaction of life. A major Prelude – Another thrilling performance. B flat minor Prelude – intensely bleak. B Major Prelude – Full of joy.

Negative Highlights really don't exist. At a minimum, every single Levin performance is highly enjoyable and rewarding.

Don's Conclusions – It's easy to strongly recommend Levin's Book I. There are no loser performances at all, and many are close to the best you can buy. The variety of instruments is another strong factor in Levin's advantage. My best advice is to purchase Levin's Book I and II. He does not take the risks of a Tureck, Gould, or Gulda, but there's much to be said for excellent mainstream interpretations. I can assure you that the multiple instrument approach does not sound like any sort of gimmick. I feel that Levin has carefully and artistically made his instrumental decisions for every set of preludes/fugues. I don't always agree with those choices, but full agreement would be impossible unless Levin and I were clones of one another. Robert Levin is the real article; he's an outstanding performing artist equally at home in Mozart as well. Buy these recordings – you won't be sorry.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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