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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book I, Part 4

Prelude in F sharp major – This is a very comforting and delicate two-part invention which goes through four other keys before returning to F sharp major. It also has an irresistible up-down quality which is based on syncopation/suspension and enhanced through strong accenting. I don't think that 'choppy' is the way to go, but Roberts certainly does; to me, it damages the flow and comfort. Tureck is slower and more fluid than Roberts; unfortunately, her accenting is rather subdued as is the up-down flow. Horszowski isn't exactly of delicate nature, but he has the music's flow and emotional content well within his grasp with a performance that beats Tureck. Jandó has all elements in order except for a low quotient of comfort and delicacy; the performance is somewhat generic. Schepkin displays much delicacy and a fine flow, but his quick pace sounds rushed. The same applies to Jarrett. Schiff's performance is a fine one at Horszowski's level.

Other less than great issues come from Fischer, Gulda, Richter, Leonhardt, and Tilney. Fischer's flow could make a person sea-sick; the very fast tempo just adds to the problem. I definitely don't enjoy his syncopation. Gulda's relatively slow performance could have been exceptional, but there's a calculated element to it which holds it down. Richter starts off flying through the prelude but does slow down later on; I don't appreciate the fast start. Leonhardt is not delicate at all; he seems to power his way through the prelude. It is attractive, but ultimately not at the highest level. For a wonderfully tender and delicate reading, check out Suzuki. The clavichord can be a great instrument for conveying tenderness and delicacy, but Tilney throws that premise out of the window with a fast and aggressive reading. It has its virtues, but I feel Tilney loses a wonderful opportunity. Cooper chops his way through the prelude; it's not as damaging as in the Roberts performance, but I can't report favorably on it.

Excellent issues come from Aldwell, Hewitt, and Gould. Betraying the common notion that Gould plays everything too fast, his F sharp prelude is the slowest of the seventeen versions. The performance has all I could want except for some less than strong accenting at times; his use of staccato is revelatory. Aldwell is almost as slow as Gould with a heart-felt and joyous interpretation. Hewitt is faster and provides sensational syncopation.

Nonesuch 79272

Suzuki's performance seems to me a perfect one. On the slow side, he delivers wonderful levels of comfort and delicacy mixed with superb accenting and syncopation. Suzuki gives me an inner glow; it must be magic.

Fugue in F sharp major – Delicately etched music continues from the F sharp major prelude. This is a gem of a fugue with a string of delightful touches and nuances. The three-part fugue provides joyful emotions tinged with hope and urgency. In the right hands, this can be an exquisite and magical creation.

Aldwell is toward the low end with a rushed performance; he sounds as if he's "toughing it out". Jarrett eschews the rushed approach and zooms though the fugue without looking back; it works very well as he puts a lot of excitement into the piece. Other fine versions include the dark-hewn Hewitt, the highly playful Schiff, the tender and slow Roberts, the comforting Horszowski, the delightful Richter, the angular Leonhardt, the cautious and deliberate Tilney, the urgent Suzuki, and the swift and energetic Fischer. Aside from Aldwell, each of these issues is well appreciated.

Jandó, Schepkin, Tureck, Cooper, and Gulda are outstanding. Jandó possesses great momentum with excellent accenting. Schepkin's is the exquisite reading of the group. Tureck uses much staccato and to great effect; she also provides an 'heroic' element to the music which I love. Gulda conveys great serenity and optimism. Cooper possesses an effervescence that begs for additional listenings.

Glenn Gould is in class of his own. He does everything the other great versions do and also creates a musical drama of highly contrasting emotions. The urgency and sense of resolution keep me glued to the headphones. This is certainly one of Gould's best Bach interpretations.

Prelude in F sharp minor – This two-part invention well carries a wide range of emotional content. In the hands of most artists, it doesn't seem that the prelude is one of Bach's more impressive achievements. However, three performances put the prelude in a special light and let us know how much it has to offer. Leonhardt gives an exquisite reading with a perfect blend of delicacy and angularity. Schepkin is power-charged from the first bar with a sinister element; many of the versions play the F sharp minor for speed and excitement, and Schepkin is the most successful. Best of all is Rosalyn Tureck who amazingly packs intense longing and urgency into an understated reading; the subtlety of it all is very impressive. The remaining versions are very enjoyable except for four: Horszowski, Jarrett, Roberts, and Richter - they achieve rather pedestrian results.

Fugue in F sharp minor – I think of this as the "All is lost" fugue. Highly chromatic, there is a largely unrelieved sadness from the four voices. Aldwell's liner notes point to the "two-note slurs from the countersubject which express grief and exhaustion". Jandó does not express very much with a constricted reading. Roberts, Horszowski, Leonhardt, Schiff, and Gould give worthy readings but are not particularly memorable.

Fischer and Hewitt are exceptional. In addition to providing a great deal of beauty and sadness, Fischer's reading always has an undercurrent of tension which adds to the drama of the music. Hewitt's performance is the most lovely and nuanced, a most interesting reading.

My favorite version comes from Richter. His is one of the slowest performances, but it has superb momentum. You know from the start that Richter is headed for resolution; inevitability is intense. Also, Richter's right hand projection is stunning. The remaining eight versions are very good.

Update on Roberts: Unfortunately, I'm finding that Roberts is increasingly not providing much depth in his interpretations. That is a shame since many other features are in good shape. Roberts certainly is a poetic enough pianist with generally fine pacing; also, the recorded sound is fabulous. But great sound and good quality playing doesn't win the day when the recorded competition includes some of the best artists of their respective generations.

Prelude in G Major – This fast moving prelude has joy and exuberance as its foundation. I find it also possesses great propulsion helped by octave leaps from the left hand and a dynamic descending series of chords at the conclusion. The less rewarding issues include Gould, Richter, and Jarrett; these three sound to me like they're mainly concerned with speed, and the exuberance is dampened. Horszowski, Hewitt, Roberts, and Gulda have their subdued periods where the excitement gets stalled. Jandó just seems to be using all his energy to negotiate through the prelude at fast speed, and Tilney is slow and on the sluggish side. The remaining eight versions are excellent; each has great propulsion and exuberance. I likely would have declared Schepkin the best, but he has a significantly clumsy moment just prior to the descending chords at the end of the prelude. If you have the opportunity, do listen to Tureck's descending chords; they are totally mesmerizing.

Fugue in G Major – This fugue, involving the inversion of the subject and countersubject, is quick and generally serene music which gives me a sensation of lifting off into the sky and flowing through the atmosphere. Matters do heat up toward the conclusion as I head into a pocket of turbulence.

Hewitt gives a three minute performance possessing excellent flow, lift, and serenity. Richter is under 2 ½ minutes, but his major contrast with Hewitt are his stronger attacks which border on being somewhat bellicose; I can't deny that his power-packed conclusion is mighty effective. But overall, I prefer Hewitt for her elegance and lift; with Richter, it's a rocky flight from the start. Suzuki and Leonhardt are as fine as Hewitt, although with more edge and excitement. The gems in this group come from Schiff and Tilney. Schiff and Hewitt are good comparisons in that both have similar tempo, flow, and poetry. However, Schiff has sharper accenting and is more expansive and interesting. Tilney's is a very exciting performance without using great speed; the urgency in his reading shines through. Although not meshing well with my perception of the music, I find Tilney irresistible.

In the next group, Jando's reading never takes flight for me as he is curiously subdued. Horszowski gives a fine interpretation with excellent optimism and lift; however, he gets too subdued in the more propulsive passages. Gould's very fast performance reminds me of Richter's except that Gould has the advantage of greater lyricism as his delicacy is a distinct improvement over Richter's sledge-hammer approach. Schepkin's is another fast and rewarding issue. Aldwell's more measured reading starts off magnificently, but he later has some problems maintaining momentum. Cooper's exciting performance is the equal of Suzuki's and Leonhardt's. There really aren't any pearls in this grouping.

With the next group having Fischer, Gulda, and Tureck, I expected additional superb readings. That doesn't happen. Both Fischer and Gulda are fast and relatively exciting; however, they are still well below Tilney's excitement quotient. Surprisingly, I don't think very well of Tureck's interpretation. She uses a pinching staccato in her right hand which isn't to my liking. Also, she is often subdued to the point of leaving the vicinity. Jarrett is quick, flows well, and provides good excitement. Roberts is on the flat/compressed side; the lift-off never happens.

Update on András Schiff – In other Bach works such as the Inventions and Goldberg Variations, I have found Schiff mannered, cute, out of proportion, and often miles away from what I consider the Bach idiom. However, in Book II of the WTC, Schiff is very good as he zeroes in on providing great performances instead of thinking of ways to be distinctive. Schiff's Book I is sounding even better than Book II. All his best traits are fully on display: wonderful poetry, incisive and lovely accenting/phrasing, and plenty of propulsion and urgency when required. Schiff's G Major series is certainly the best of the seventeen versions. Currently, I have him in the top third of performances in Book I.

Prelude in G minor – Prolonged trills from the right hand, a heavy gait from the bass, and an expansive melody line create a prelude of much sadness contrasted by a few rays of light. I find Richter too quick and compressed. Jandó gives a fine reading with good momentum. Aldwell is slow and a little sluggish. Roberts is expansive but lacks some depth. Schiff's reading is similar to Robert's except that Schiff has all the feeling missing in the other's performance; It's an exceptional and gorgeous reading highlighted by its melancholy. Fischer is also superb with an interpretation of subtle urgency always striving to take center stage; he also provides a great sense of comfort which creates an incisive contrast.

In the next group, Schepkin and Tureck give outstanding readings. Schepkin is very slow and dripping with melancholy. Tureck is the epitome of stature and beauty. Horszowski is very good but a little too strong. Jarrett is quick and effective; he could have delved more deeply into the music. Leonhardt sounds angry and condemning; it's an interesting approach. I didn't think very well of Hewitt's performance; her right hand is sometimes flat and her extremes of dynamics are more than I want to handle.

Suzuki's reading is irresistible and quite different from all the others. Although sufficiently melancholy, there is always an undercurrent of optimism. Suzuki finds rays of light that no other version contemplates. Cooper is the slowest of all issues and lacks some continuity. Gould gives a heart-felt performance which is more than I can say for Tilney. Gulda employs the fastest tempo of the seventeen versions with a "forward march" reading of fine lyricism. Overall, Suzuki, Schepkin, Fischer, Tureck, and Schiff best serve the G minor Prelude; each is outstanding in its own way.

Fugue in G minor – A four-voice fugue with stretti. The music can be heroic, grieving, noble, and even angry. Most important, there's an inevitability that needs capturing. Jandó gives his worst performance; it's fast, loud, and disagreeable. Schiff and Roberts are a step up, but not very rewarding. Schiff has his loud moments and doesn't bring his poetic nature to the table. Roberts again is superficial.

Gulda, Tilney, Gould, Cooper, and Leonhardt are outstanding versions; each has a strong element of striving for resolution and fine degrees of ceremony and nobility. The remaining versions are very good with Hewitt providing the most angular delivery with great heroism.

Update: Rosalyn Tureck is starting to create some distance for herself from the other versions. Gould, Gulda, Fischer, Suzuki, Leonhardt, Schiff, Schepkin, and Richter have been highly rewarding. Roberts, Horszowski, and Jandó continue toward the bottom the group; their performances have not been bad at all, but they seldom rise to the top.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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