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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book I, Part 2

Prelude in D Major – Continuous semi-quavers from the right hand and a staccato bass line make this prelude very joyous and playful. Timings range from the one to two minute range, and I find that the fastest versions sacrifice some playfulness in favor of virtuosity. This is the case with Richter, Schepkin, Jandó, Fischer, and Horszowski. If fast speed is your preference, I'd recommend the Schepkin. I feel that Gould's very quick version sacrifices everything for momentum; he sounds like a runaway train. Tureck's problem is a rather dour interpretation.

Leonhardt and Hewitt provide the special performances. Hewitt, unlike in all the other versions, keeps alternating volume levels. It's a great decision which enhances variety and interest. Leonhardt's version is the most playfully joyful, and much of that is due to a fantastic staccato bass line. The remaining versions are excellent. Of particular note, treat yourself to some amazing semi-quavers from Gulda and a supremely poetic right hand from Schiff.

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Fugue in D Major – Heroic music in the form of a French Overture. The ceremonial features begin immediately and build up quickly; another great aspect of this fugue is the swirling of the theme as it shifts from one voice to the next. Jarrett gives a "vanilla" performance: very little variety and much too bland. Aldwell is better, but his legato is a little out of place and ceremony is not strong. Tureck's is the slowest version. At her tempo, the emphasis of the dotted rhythms is not sufficiently pronounced. Horszowski is too relaxed, and I don't care for his basic pulse.

There are quite a few excellent versions: Suzuki, Tilney, Leonhardt, Cooper, Gulda, Schiff, Hewitt, Fischer, Jandó, and Gould. Each one is strongly heroic. Schepkin, Richter, and Roberts are a little below the top level. Surprisingly, Richter's angularity is not pronounced; Robert's version is a little relaxed and a case of one trill too many.

Prelude in D minor – This is a dark and foreboding prelude which has intensity at its core; the prevalence of broken chords from the right hand gives the music a galloping element. Some versions do not stress the dark side of the prelude and replace it with priority on voice interaction and poetry; that approach can also be very rewarding.

Tilney and Suzuki are slow paced and lose much intensity in the process; there are other 'light' versions which are more poetic and interesting. Leonhardt wears a light tone although he certainly enters a dark world. Jandó is rather bland; he veers toward intensity but does not get there. Aldwell sounds cute and whimsical, much removed from intensity and on the lowest rung with Jando.

Excellent versions are provided by Tureck, Horszowski, Gulda, Schepkin, Roberts, Jarrett, and Cooper. Each is lacking a little in darkness and menace compared to the best performances. However, Schepkin's descending cascade of notes toward the conclusion gives me the most vivid imagery of vehicles falling over a cliff.

Among five superb versions, Schiff's is the most technically distinctive. He greatly slows down the proceedings and allows the listener to relish all of Bach's architecture. Also, Schiff's lyricism and right-hand cadence are outstanding. Gould and Richter deliver the 'power' readings; I get a big kick out of listening to them. Hewitt provides great mystery, poetry, and dynamic shading. Lastly, there's the sinister and menacing Fischer – you don't want to be in his house. The tension is so tight as he takes the listener to the outer rim of emotional terror. If I had to choose among these five readings, Schiff and Fischer would get my vote.

Fugue in D minor – A very sad, veering toward austere, three-voice fugue with stretto and the first inversion of the subject in the '48'. Most of the versions are very good except for Jarrett, Cooper, and Suzuki. Jarrett and Cooper are fast and aggressive; it doesn't suit them well. Suzuki tends toward choppiness in the more beautiful passages. The performances I like best are from Tureck who is very slow and incisive, Gould who is propulsive, Aldwell who applies great poetry, Hewitt whose stretto is the most effective, Schiff for his great expressiveness, and Fischer for the wonderful tension in his reading.

Prelude in E Flat Major – Life affirming music having three sections: a toccata-like opening, a short and slow ricercare, and a double fugue incorporating elements of the opening and ricercare. Schiff, Fischer, and Richter, although having excellent middle sections, are rather aggressive in the double fugue and lacking in life's satisfactions. The same applies to Gulda whose middle section is ordinary as well. Horszowski is on the right track, but I feel that he does not well execute his conception. Cooper's is a surface reading.

Very good versions include Roberts, Hewitt, Leonhardt, Suzuki, Jandó, Aldwell, Jarrett, and Tilney who are life affirming throughout with some delicious poetry. The outstanding versions come from Gould, Schepkin, and Tureck. Gould is at his best with a staccato approach and great forward momentum and joy in the double fugue. Schepkin is slower and uses much legato; his performance provides life's rewards with a wonderful blend of lyricism and urgency. Tureck is majestic in stature and beautifully tender as if she could envelop all humankind with her radiance.

Fugue in E Flat Major – A joyously light three-voice fugue with strong forward momentum. Jandó, Fischer, and Schiff have some trouble maintaining momentum. That's no problem for Roberts, Suzuki, Jarrett, and Cooper; however, the joy in their readings is on the surface. Schepkin possesses plenty of joy, but his phrasing is sometimes clipped and awkward. Horszowski has a few technical challenges, but the joy and momentum come through well. I find Gulda a little more aggressive than joyous. Hewitt is a mix of almost hushed tones and aggressive/loud playing which is not particularly rewarding.

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The excellent versions are provided by Tureck, Leonhardt, Gould, Tilney, Aldwell, and Richter. Tureck is slow with a delightful staccato. Leonhardt's tempo is the slowest of the group, and he still maintains momentum while giving a light and joyous reading. Tilney's clavichord sounds wonderfully tangy, and it's clear he is enjoying his music performance. Aldwell displays a pristine and playful lightness with quick tempo. Richter is a speed merchant and pulls it off completely; he somehow maintains a lightness of mood although his reading is the most exciting. Gould's pacing is infectious and joy is always the dominant ingredient.

Prelude in E flat minor – The prelude is very serious and noble music with the potential for great emotional impact on the listener. You won't get any of that from Jarrett who gives us a fairly quick and somewhat breezy account; there are no clouds in his performance and his accenting is very weak. There's no edge from Jarrett. There is plenty of edge from Leonhardt, but it's all superficial. His phrasing is square throughout as he makes this music a mere trifle. Even Jarrett is a major improvement on Leonhardt's quick and annoying performance. Tureck brings to light a different problem -performing in such a smooth and slow manner that interest gradually wanes. I am very disappointed in Tureck's reading. I suppose that it's a lovely performance, but it has little backing it up. Gulda is mostly subdued and not very interesting.

Six outstanding performances include Richter, Cooper, Tilney, Fischer, Horszowski, and Gould. I know that Gould's inclusion will not sit well with some, but I personally consider it a wonderful interpretation. These six have in common a boldness in their deliveries, sharp and well projected accenting, and strong emotional impact. Cooper gives one of the slowest performances where every note counts and is emphasized; the harpsichord sounds so precise and with great tonal beauty. The nobility in Cooper's reading is supreme, and his is my favorite interpretation. The remaining versions are fine listening experiences.

Fugue in D sharp minor – This fugue has stretto, augmentation, and inversion of the subject. The music has strong reflective qualities, and they are not of the positive variety; images in my head are serious and mostly severe. Hewitt's liner notes state, "The important thing is to make this piece expressive, and not have it sound like a study in fugal construction". Although that sounds like good advice for the performance of any fugue, it does have strong application in the D sharp minor due to the music's complexity and duration; six minute readings are not beyond acceptable limits. Horszowski clocks in at almost six minutes, and his performance is strong, severe, and lyrical. Then comes Tureck, over six minutes, who shows to my mind what's wrong with Horszowski's reading. Tureck has great accenting/phrasing, lyricism miles ahead of Horszowski, and dynamic shading of exceptional quality. In this comparison, Horszowski does sound like he is giving a "study in fugal construction", although a very good one.

Jandó is in the five minute range and displays effective tension and a strong sense of inevitability. Richter is even slower than Tureck and possesses many of the same wonderful traits; Fischer does so with a faster pace. Hewitt's is a rather "benign" performance, although she is highly lyrical and finds every single ray of light in the music. I expected that Aldwell would perform in a similar manner, and he does just that except that he's slower by about 30 seconds with a six minute reading. With both Hewitt and Aldwell, I feel that they are a little too smooth with accenting which could be more pronounced; the same applies to Schepkin. Switch to Roberts and I think you will find his accenting better proportioned and much more effective. With Gould and Gulda, clarity and precision win the day; their lyricism and momentum are superb also.

Although it surprised me some, Jarrett makes his seamless style work beautifully. In some respects he is similar to Aldwell and Hewitt, but his faster tempo(under five minutes)allows him the opportunity to supply greater momentum. Jarrett is also more serious than the other two. Schiff, faster than Jarrett, sounds like he has an urgent train to catch. His poetry is not deep, and his tempo possibly can't allow for depth.

Among the harpsichord/clavichord versions, Leonhardt takes a narrow approach and could be considered studious. Regardless, it's a tremendously effective performance of strong severity, beautifully contrasted and subtle rays of light, and a momentum to die for. This reminds me of Leonhardt's best performances in his Art of Fugue on Vanguard. Suzuki's reading is quite light compared to Leonhardt's. Although enjoyable, this relatively upbeat performance doesn't present enough contrast to be one of the best versions. Tilney, like Leonhardt, has little horizontal expression. Unfortunately, Tilney possesses none of Leonhardt's outstanding features; the reading is not very interesting. Cooper, although better than Tilney, has little momentum to go with his very slow tempo; the performance drags at times.

So we have eight outstanding issues: Leonhardt, Jarrett, Gulda, Gould, Roberts, Richter, Fischer, and Tureck. I have to select Leonhardt's as the best version based on that inevitability element that he usually shines in no matter how slow his tempo.

Part 2 Update: As in my Part 1 update, I feel the need to stress that each of the 17 sets is a joy to listen to. I have Jandó and Horszowski at the bottom of the list, but both have been very rewarding. At this point, Tureck and Gould head the list with Richter, Gulda, and Leonhardt close behind. The new version by Gary Cooper is doing well, about in the middle of the pack. However, I was listening in my car today to the second disc from his set, and I do believe that Cooper will be dropping some from his present level. I am a little surprised that I'm not enjoying Horszowski as much as I thought I would. Schiff is doing better than I would have initially thought. In the WTC, he behaves much better than in the other Bach works he has recorded, largely eschewing the cute little touches he uses which I often feel ruins his poetic nature such as in his Inventions and Goldberg Variations. At any rate, I'm finding a treasure of wonderful music and interpretations from the sets being reviewed. My only reservation is how often I keep opening and closing the cd player drawer; I make the assumption that these drawers can't last indefinitely.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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