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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book I, Part 3

Prelude in E Major – One of Bach's best musical traits is his ability to present sublime music of comfort and joy, then contrast it with tension created by the minor mode. Bach does this expertly in the Prelude in E major. You couldn't find music more gorgeous which is then, starting in measure 6, contrasted by minor key chords; it's a stroke of genius which makes the prelude such wonderful music. All of the versions are at least very good. These six are outstanding: Gulda, Fischer, Cooper, Leonhardt, Gould, and Tureck. They deeply penetrate Bach's world of serenity and provide effective tension in the minor mode. Fischer's strong and sinister way with the minor key chords is particularly memorable.

Fugue in E Major – A three voice fugue of great exuberance and confidence highlighted by running sixteenth notes in perpetual motion except for just the first two notes. Some consider this fugue to denote a carefree attitude, but I think of it as heralding the beginning of a day of commerce on a retail street as shop owners get ready for another round of economic prosperity; times are good and confidence is supreme. It's a tribute to individual industry.

The following versions are short on exuberance: Hewitt, Aldwell, Fischer, Roberts, and Tilney. I should mention that Hewitt keeps switching from almost hushed tones to loud and aggressive playing. Horszowski is exuberant enough but technically challenged. These issues have fine exuberance and confidence: Gulda, Jarrett, Suzuki, Leonhardt, Gould, Richter, Cooper, Tureck, and Schiff. Schepkin and Jandó are outstanding. They excellently capture the bustle, energy, and satisfaction of my market-place. Even forgetting the imagery, these two versions clearly possess the joy of life in great measure.

Prelude in E minor – This piece comes in two sections. The first is prayer-like in nature with suspense building, and the second section is rapid-fire and ominous with the potential to even convey absolute panic. Gulda's is one of the least rewarding performances; there isn't much suspense building, and the second section just sounds like bluster. Jarrett plays as if he hasn't a clue what's going on. Although his left hand in the first section gives pleasure, his right hand just tends to doodle along without feeling; the second section is also lacking emotion. Richter's sound engineering has usually been sufficient, but it's unacceptable this time; the ear-splitting start of the second section dominates my feelings about the performance.

Here are some better issues. Leonhardt has everything in place for a superb reading except for abrupt endings in the first section which are woven into the pacing. Tilney also is abrupt and he telegraphs the second section; that damages impact. However, his performance is loaded with suspense and his second section is excellent. Jando's suspense level is also high. Schiff's first section is quick and exceptional; unfortunately, his telegraphing of the second section is even worse than Tilney's. In all ways but one, Aldwell's extremely slow first section is exceptional – he builds no tension or suspense; Aldwell's second section is much too tame. Schepkin gives a fine all-around performance. Tureck's first section is gorgeous although having only moderate suspense; the second section is a little light. Roberts goes from a very tense and effective first section to a second section too restrained. Horszowski, Gould, and Cooper are very good throughout.

Hewitt and Fischer are excellent. Hewitt expertly combines poignancy and tension in both sections. Fischer's first section is mesmerizing and incisive; the second section is a little less effective.

BIS 813/14

Suzuki gives by far the best performance. Right from the start, the tension is brooding, intense, and heating up; there's the smell of impending carnage in the air. With the second theme, all hell breaks loose as panic is at a fever pitch. I can't imagine an interpretation with more impact than Suzuki's.

Fugue in E minor – The carnage anticipated in Suzuki's Prelude in E minor comes full-circle in the E minor Fugue. With razor-sharp and bold strokes, body parts are being hacked off and flying through the air. The invaders have no time nor inclination to differentiate among men, women, and children; it's all the same to them. Pure evil is on display – the underside of human motivation is in full swing and it's a gruesome sight. These are my images, and I make no claim that Bach was trying to convey anything like them.

In the first grouping of six versions, Roberts is light-years away from giving an effective performance. I have no idea what his interpretive stand would be, but he conveys practically nothing to me in terms of danger, carnage, panic, or the dark side of human thought and action. Gould, Jandó, Schiff, and Fischer take me partially there; Gould is like lightning but surprisingly restrained in mood. Suzuki, although he does not fully fulfill the promise of his prelude, is very urgent, dark, and helter-skelter. But there's plenty of room for a reading which really lets loose.

Richter fills up the entire room with a technically commanding "slash and burn" performance. He's fast, supremely aggressive, and without one iota of sentiment. Richter gives the appearance of being out of control when he is really in total command; this contrast makes for a very special listening experience where I feel I am being introduced to the unadulterated terror and evil that lurk within us. You know it's in there somewhere. Tilney and Horszowski are very good and at Suzuki's high level; Horszowski is as fast as Richter, but his technical command is much lower. Tureck, Aldwell, and Leonhardt are moderately rewarding. Tureck takes the slow route and starts off in sinister fashion, but she loses it some along the way.

It would be quite an achievement to equal or surpass Richter's version, and none of the third group performances gets there. However, very fine readings are given by Jarrett, Schepkin, Cooper, and Gulda. Hewitt tends to use a soft touch too frequently.

Prelude in F Major – A healthy amount of Bach's music creates in me a feeling of "community". This is not the needful type as in "It takes a Village to raise a child", but a community based on shared interests which leads to bonding and a voluntary desire to interact. Being a solo person, it takes masterful "community-based" music to enter and strongly impact me. That's my lead-in to both the F Major Prelude & Fugue. If I get a strong feeling of the joys of community, I know I'm listening to a wonderful performance. Of course, I'm also open to strong feelings of any type from a performance of different interpretation.

I did have a strong reaction to Fischer's performance of the prelude which is a two-part invention; I wanted it to end quickly. It's not very well played, rather messy toward the end, and sounds like more of an exercise. Gould, although better, restrains his breadth of expression. Horszowski gives a fine performance with much joy and exuberance, but he loses some momentum toward the conclusion. Hewitt, like Gould, is somewhat restrained and also rather dark of mood; she further exhibits what I'd call weak projection at times. Jando's reading is a little on the dark side, but I am attracted to his pacing and momentum. I thought Roberts would be a fine match for this prelude but I was way off; he has a great deal of difficulty with the technical challenges and I found myself hoping he could make it to the end without some big mistake.

Tureck slows things down a little and applies staccato to her right hand; the reading is quite dark but not somber. Richter is on the heavy side, although he plays expertly. I didn't mention it yet, but the prelude has many trills, often from both hands simultaneously. Although Aldwell has the right frame of mind, he has much trouble negotiating those trills; when they are simultaneous, it sounds as if he might drop the ball altogether – retakes were needed on this one, and it's quite possible that what I was listening to already involved them.

Visiting the harpsichord/clavichord versions, none of them really hits the spot. Suzuki, Leonhardt, and Tilney are a little too dark and not sufficiently effervescent. Although Leonhardt is quite slow with a performance lasting 1 ½ minutes, Cooper extends to almost 2 minutes and has the atmosphere of a funeral dirge. He and Fischer provide the least appealing versions.

Philips 446545

These are the versions which bring out the brightness and joy in the music: Gulda, Jarrett, and Schiff. That leaves Schepkin who is the ONE in this music. His reading is drenched with joy and excitement; it conjures up images of a town boating race with a fish-fry after the excitement. At least on this one day, the town is alive with fun and the pleasures of community.

The Fugue in F Major, a passepied employing stretti, continues the joyous activities of the Prelude. Richter slows down twice; whatever his motivation, I find the momentum is damaged significantly. That's a shame since the rest of the performance is as joyful and exciting as I could want. Jandó, Leonhardt, and Schepkin give fine readings. Fischer is slower than the average, and he adds an additional dimension to the music; his is a special performance. Jarrett is also on the slow side and finds all the joy the music has to offer; it's a role-model performance at its tempo. His use of stretti is stunning as is his bass line.

In the next grouping, Gould, Hewitt, Suzuki, and Tureck provide good performances. Hewitt's approach is interesting as she injects a strong degree of mystery and reflection. Gulda uses a great mix of staccato and legato to weave a happy and exuberant spell over this listener. Tilney is also excellent as his clavichord seems a natural for the music's moods.

The third grouping finds Horszowski not very joyous and not replacing it with any other favorable feature. Roberts has a tempo very similar to Jarrett, but the similarities end there. Roberts is sluggish in his quest to be meaningful and the result is not acceptable. Aldwell is smooth as silk with a very good performance. Schiff is even better as his joy leaps off the page. Cooper is again very slow, but his fugue has much better lift to it than his prelude until he bogs down badly toward the conclusion.

For the F Major Fugue, Jarrett and Fischer are my favorite versions. Jarrett is simply delicious throughout. Fischer's special quality is the tension he brings to the music. I usually find this to be his best strength in Bach, and he applies it here expertly. The tension does not detract from the music's joy; it feels as if the tension stimulates the joyous elements in some galvanizing manner. I can't resist it at all.

Prelude in F minor – A very sad piece dependent on sixteenth notes with a very uplifting passage about 30 seconds into the music. In my particular imagery, a young woman sits isolated in her run-down apartment. Her heroin addiction is all that drives her and consists of a continuous cycle of physical need, purchase derived from prostitution, and the 'rush' she lives for. In the uplifting passage, I can figuratively feel the heroin entering and flowing through her bloodstream. The music has a subtle but strong urgency combined with the comfort of resignation.

Schiff, Jarrett, and Roberts are relatively surface-bound. Horszowski could have engaged in greater subtlety, and Hewitt's extremes of projection are not to my liking. Fine versions come from Cooper, Tilney, Richter, Leonhardt, Gulda, and Jando. Gould and Schepkin are excellent. It is noteworthy that Gould takes about five minutes while no other version reaches three minutes.

Outstanding performances come from Tureck, Fischer, and Suzuki. Tureck is not slow paced, but she retains her typical features of elegance, beauty, and depth. Fischer's tension is very strong and permeates his reading. Suzuki's is a role-model interpretation with fantastic harpsichord sound. Saving the best for last, Aldwell's reading has the highest level of resignation, and I feel that this emotion is at the heart of the prelude. He also blends it wonderfully with the tension he provides.

Fugue in F minor – Conditions are worsening for our young addict. Her regular drug supplier has been killed in a deal gone bad. No paragon of virtue, this supplier did deal with her fairly within the drug culture in that she received the right dose for the right amount of money or sexual equivalent. Now, she must deal with multiple suppliers, and she has no trust in any of them. The product is less reliable, and her sexual payments have become more extreme. Sometimes she day-dreams about a different life where she has a family and/or a good job with some security. Then she looks at her arms and face in the cracked mirror, and the dream evaporates. The bottom is looking very close, and she knows that she will soon be there.

Structurally, the ten-note subject flows in quarter-notes while the countersubjects move in sixteenth notes. Darkness and hard reality are prevalent. However, there are also diatonic passages which alternate with the chromatic ones to create a sense of humanity lurking in the shadows but never quite coming to the forefront. This is emotionally powerful music having no need of extreme emoting to make its impact on the listener. Performances displaying a condition of resignation and bleakness are most likely to win my affection.

Quick performances are in the four minute or less category; the slower ones push the five minute level. Tureck gives one of the slower performances, and it represents quite a contrast with the faster readings from Jarrett and Horszowski. Her level of resignation and bleakness is very strong, making the other two sound emotionally undernourished. Tureck also wrings every ounce of beauty out of the music. Aldwell is also on the slow side and projects more strongly than Tureck; however, I find it a little too strong. Also, his reading does not possess the inevitability of Tureck's, having a somewhat "pretty" quality about it. Leonhardt clearly brings out the inevitability but is a little low on resignation to match Tureck. I find Cooper too bright in spirit but he certainly provides a lovely performance.

Schiff's relatively quick performance is gorgeous and bleak as well; it has a delicate aura I find captivating. This is fully the equal of Tureck's outstanding issue. Roberts sounds bad after listening to Schiff; he comes in under 3 ½ minutes and mostly appears mad and aggressive. Gulda, of very slow tempo, returns me to the heights of performance quality with the inevitability of Leonhardt and the beauty of Schiff. The fast track, similar to Roberts, is taken by Gould who does much better with it. He maintains depth and is quite uplifting. Tilney, although much slower than Gould, gives an equally uplifting performance.

Suzuki is quick and pretty with reduced depth. Hewitt displays much resignation and tenderness; her reading is also beautifully nuanced. Jando's surprisingly slow performance does not display much horizontal expressiveness nor does it provide strong momentum. Richter's interpretation is relatively subdued and benign, although loaded with felicitous touches. Schepkin, as in the F minor Prelude, gives an excellent performance highlighted by an infectious sense of dignity. Fischer is very effective with a reading of urgency.

Overall, my favorite F minor performances are from Tureck, Schiff, and Gulda. On the next level are Leonhardt, Fischer, Schepkin, Hewitt, Gould, and Tilney. Roberts holds up the rear.

Update: I have Tureck as the most rewarding set so far with Gould and Gulda close behind. Fischer, Richter, Leonhardt, and Schiff occupy the next level. Roberts, Horszowski, and Jandó, although very enjoyable, are not performing in as incisive a manner as the other fourteen versions. The newest entrant, Gary Cooper, is holding his own but not measuring up to the best versions. His performances are beautifully recorded, and he generally uses slow tempos which allow the listener to investigate Bach's architecture. However, Cooper sometimes remains on the music's surface; when he goes beyond, his readings are enlightening.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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