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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book I, Part 5

Prelude in A Flat Major – A spacious and joy-filled prelude that conjures up images of thousands of people in the streets of New York City, Times Square, celebrating the end of World War II. I wasn't around then, but the newsreel footage I have seen left a strong imprint on me. The A Flat Major begins in an heroic and dance-like fashion that turns into a more exuberant expression of joy led by sixteenth notes which give the prelude its exciting characteristics.

Schiff is good, although he doesn't do much with the sixteenth notes. By contrast, Aldwell uses them to great advantage and excitement in the climaxes. However, Aldwell's version is on the slow side and tends to drag when the dance is prevalent. There are no dancing problems for Hewitt, but she is too subdued in the first climax. Suzuki tends to get everything right except for a lack of high excitement. The most significant difference between Suzuki and Tilney is that Tilney provides a wonderfully spontaneous display of joy and excitement that's largely missing in Suzuki's performance. It's also missing in the Leonhardt reading which is as slow as Aldwell's. On the plus side, Leonhardt never drags and he gives the music a stature that's attractive. Tilney's version is the exceptional one in this grouping.

Gary Cooper is much too rounded in the opening, but he improves considerably after that; excitement is strong. The same comments apply to Jarrett. Jandó leaves me flat; this is a very ordinary performance where the notes are right but the emotions are as flat as I feel after listening to it. Fischer is very unusual. He starts off as if in a coma instead of in a dancing frame of mind. Although he does later spring to life, his reading has a 'lullaby' element which I don't feel matches up well with the score. Tureck's reading is a delectable one. Heroism is strong, joy rings out, and Tureck's staccato is very effective. This slow paced version which never drags is at Tilney's level of excellence. Gulda is also slow paced but much less animated than Tureck. The heroism is lower as is the excitement. But this is not a 'loser' performance. Although somewhat clinical, there is a conveying of investigation that I like very much.

With heroism and excitement at his disposal, I would bet that Gould's performance is a thrilling experience. Well, it would be if Gould was faster, more heroic, and more exciting. There's nothing wrong with the interpretation, but it's not prime-time Gould. Mr. Roberts is too subdued in the dance but does very well with the sixteenth notes. Horszowski is very appealing although festivity in the dance is low and the playing is far from technically perfect; he does generate much excitement. Once upon a time I loved Schepkin's version, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. In present time, I find it sounds rushed and a little contrived. Wrong notes, uneven tempo at the beginning, and a lack of continuity hold back Richter's version.

Fugue in A Flat Major – Noble music which is referred to as the "cathedral" fugue. The moods of the piece include hope, quiet optimism, and relief; there is an upgrading of intensity in the last minute or so. Additionally, the prelude has a constant drive to it which most versions recognize.

Angela Hewitt is sensational. The cathedral effect she provides with her right hand is stunning, and her velvet-textured and soft conclusion is perfect. Hewitt is also very expansive while still maintaining fine momentum. Excellent readings are given by Jarrett, Tureck, Jandó. Richter, and Schepkin; each displays very strong momentum and fine lyricism.

I don't consider the Suzuki or Gulda versions rewarding. Both are rather forceful and can become overbearing. The remaining issues are good ones. Gould is very fast, but he holds it together well.

Prelude in G sharp minor – A gently swaying and monothematic three-part invention with the opening melodic passage in every voice and often inverted. The opening passage is a gorgeous one of a bitter/sweet nature. When listening to this prelude, I see Japanese children playing in the park just minutes before the dropping of atomic weapons. All seems serene, but the music pays subtle homage to the impending carnage. The children are totally unaware of what is coming, and of greater impact, they couldn't possibly envision the level of destruction close at hand.

I appreciate Richter's performance, but I prefer a little slower tempo and a more gentle delivery. That's what I get from Angela Hewitt's and Gould's readings which are beautiful while fully vesting the music with its subtle cloud cover. Horszowski uses a very slow tempo which the music can easily handle; his reading is quite sad and just as effective as Hewitt and Gould. Leonhardt's is another great version which is sharper than the norm but still retains a sufficiently cantabile nature. Suzuki is the epitome of a cantabile manner with a lovely performance.

Jarrett is as quick as Richter but less forceful; that's favorable, but there's little depth to the interpretation. Although I'm surprised to be writing this, I find Tureck to be a little superficial, particularly in her right hand which simply isn't expressive enough. Aldwell is superb except for a little squareness which holds his performance back from being at the top level. Also not quite at the top level is Schiff with a slow paced and highly inflected reading. Gulda's distinction is the use of staccato in his right hand; it's an interesting approach but borders on damaging the cantabile nature of the music. Roberts is highly rewarding with a heart-felt performance.

Naxos 8.553796/7

Schepkin is on the quick side and sounds somewhat rushed. Jandó comes up with one of his best performances; legato and accenting are perfect. Fischer is tender but still maintains an undercurrent of tension which is one of his best Bach trademarks. Tilney doesn't quite make the grade; his reading is very slow and rather sharp. Cooper is very fine with a seamless reading with little hesitations which I find enjoyable. Summing up, the stellar performances come from Suzuki, Jandó, and Hewitt. Each has the full legato approach, ample serenity, and a delicate nature. They also strike a wonderful balance between the prevailing calm and impending storm.

Fugue in G sharp minor – It's been days since the atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima. The fire storms have ended and survivors are starting to come out into the foul and deadly air. What they witness seems impossible, and they know that they are now in a new world of horrific proportion. President Truman is trying not to obsess about the worst ramifications of his bombing decision, and he's insuring that public statements stress the necessity of what he has ordered. But inside, he knows that he has wrecked a terrible vengeance on innocent civilians. This has never before been the price of a war, and he has upped the ante.

This four-voice fugue is a bleak and closed listening experience. The fugue's subject enters relentlessly(tenor-alto-soprano-bass); it struggles to get up but is beaten down every time. Later, a countersubject's augmentation of the fugue subject adds stress to the proceedings. Gould will have none of this negativity; he flies thru the fugue with hardly a concern in the world, making the music pleasant background listening. I find his interpretation extremely benign and inconsequential. Speaking of benign performances, Aldwell is mainly gentle and delicate and way off the mark; also, his phrasing can be somewhat square. Most of the other versions are moderately rewarding.

Vanguard 8046/7

Jandó, Horszowski, Gulda, Tilney, Fischer, and Schiff give excellent performances with strong urgency; Gulda is very interesting in that he extends the music to over five minutes and still manages to keep me glued to the headphones. Schepkin and Richter are magical in the G sharp minor. The entering of each voice is stunning in their hands, and the loop is always closed and conditions bleak. Right hand projection, strong and sharp, enhances the sense of dire need and desperation. Also, at their slow tempo, they are able to take time to do some pondering; that's where I get Truman's pondering of the most important decision of his life. The basic difference between these two superb interpretations is that Richter provides more of an inevitability while Schepkin places greater priority on the music's lyricism.

Prelude in A major – This is a one minute three-voice invention with three themes in triple counterpoint. The music has a serene and joyous quality to it while at the same time expressing youthful energy. The prelude has a delicate element as well. Gould and Tilney don't provide much joy. Gould is fast and mechanical; Tilney just doesn't have on his happy face. Gulda, even faster than Gould, manages to keep a smile. Horszowski and Schiff also provide fine versions. Jarrett's performance is a gem; he is thoroughly radiant and joyful with a stunning legato.

In the next group, I would have liked more exuberance from Aldwell and Hewitt, although both are very poetic, delicate, and serene. Jando is quick and invigorating. Roberts is beautifully serene with plenty of youth; his phrasing can be a little awkward. Cooper's reading is joyful and quite enjoyable. The special version in this group comes from Suzuki; he brings out splendidly the delicate nature of the music as well as its serenity and joy.

The third group finds Leonhardt in a fairly happy mood, although he isn't the type to display much of the music's delicate element. Tureck, using much staccato, finds a large reservoir of good feelings. Schepkin gives a lovely reading which is a little too subdued. Richter supplies much joy and youthfulness. This also applies to Fischer, although he has a technical problem for a few seconds starting at 26 seconds into his performance. No version is this group approaches either Jarrett or Suzuki.

Update on Jarrett & Roberts – I've thrown these two together because they have two basic similarities. First, neither one tends to find the core of Bach's deepest works. Second, both have a strong preference for legato playing. This works to their advantage in pieces such as the Prelude in A major which lends itself to the legato approach and is not music of depth. Jarrett's superiority in the A major points to an advantage I think he possesses over Roberts. Jarrett is the better pianist; his legato is more seamless and he is much more likely not to engage in any slip-ups concerning phrasing and flow. Roberts has received some excellent reviews for his WTC, but I find that he consistently does not compare well to the better Bach recording artists.

Fugue in A major – This fugue is in two sections; the first in eighth notes, the second in sixteenth notes. Stretto and its inversion are prevalent; a "zig-zag" motion is continuous. I still have vivid memories of Schepkin's A major when I reviewed his Book I over a year ago. His reading takes only two minutes and is very lively and exhilarating. It had me picturing a bogus fortune teller at the end of her workday counting out her proceeds again and again; I could almost hear the flicking of the coins off her fingers. She is enjoying this little exercise, knowing that the money is not legitimately earned. When finished, she skips merrily across the street to the bank to make her deposit. The woman has little sense of ethics, knows it, and isn't bothered at all by the fact.

For this series of reviews, I first listened to Horszowski and was somewhat stunned. He takes three minutes, and much of the bounce and exhilaration are gone. Instead, the reading is stately and quite lovely. However, I don't feel that the music well accomodates Horszowski's approach. Also, there's little contrast with the A major prelude. Jando's 2 ½ minute performance seems to be in no-man's land; it isn't fast enough to match the imagery that Schepkin provides nor is it stately like Horszowski's reading. Jandó is basically too heavy in his execution. Richter's tempo is similar to Jando's but the heaviness is gone and replaced with a light and delicate touch. Jarrett's as quick as Schepkin but he flattens the music, loses the bounce, and is left with very little. Tilney delivers a great performance; his clavichord rings out with happiness and the "flicking" element couldn't be stronger. Leonhardt is very vivacious and filled with joy. In this grouping, Tilney and Leonhardt join Schepkin in giving outstanding readings.

Cooper, like Jarrett, flattens the music but still has plenty of sharpness from his harpsichord, and the pacing is excellent. Gould surpasses all other versions (excepting one) with an infectious rhythm and pin-point accenting; in his hands, the fugue becomes multi-dimensional. Also, you couldn't ask for a better version to investigate the architecture. Gulda flies through the fugue, making Schepkin seem like a slow-poke. It has some benefits but mainly sounds like a fast-forward approach. Aldwell has the flattening bug but compensates with a lovely and dream-like interpretation. Roberts has everything in place except that he doesn't give very much of himself.

One of the things I love about reviewing is I can get to the last group of performances and already have three great versions and one transcendent reading in reserve. And the last group looks very imposing – Schiff, Hewitt, Tureck, Fischer, and Suzuki. András Schiff is such a pleasure to listen to. His reading is pristine, delicate, and thoroughly irresistible. Hewitt is very playful and enjoyable. Remember Horszowski? Rosalyn Tureck is even slower but she has a much better grasp on the music's architecture. Accenting is sharp, the zig-zag in full supply, and pure joy is in the air. Tureck matches Gould in making a full meal out of an appetizer. Fischer's performance is light and airy like Richter's and very rewarding. Suzuki does well with highly angular performance. Overall, Gould and Tureck take first position with Schiff, Tilney, Leonhardt, and Schepkin next in line. Jarrett occupies the cellar.

Prelude in A minor – Continuing with our fortune teller, there's a warrant for her arrest for mail fraud. She's now being chased by the authorities. She's speeding as fast as she can, but her car is no match for the FBI. Regardless, she knows every alley and takes them for a wild ride before being captured. The left-hand trills at the beginning of the prelude convey danger and mystery which consistently pervade the music.

Jarrett plays the piece lightly, down playing its dark emotional core. Both Jandó and Roberts find the dark core; Jandó is much better however in his execution. Roberts hesitates on occasion and has his awkward moments. Hewitt is as effective as Jando. Tilney is too slow and episodic to be one of the better versions. Suzuki is much slower than Tilney but does provide fine continuity.

It's been quite a long time in this review since I was last on the same wavelength as Horszowski and/or I noticed no problems with his execution; this is one of those times. Horszowski is quite dark and even menacing on occasion. In the past, I would have promoted Schepkin's version as one of the best, but I now find it too tame; also, he has some trill-happy moments. Aldwell is on the right track, but I would have liked a faster tempo. Schiff provides the speed and the mood, but his right and left hand interplay sounds a little out of sync. Fischer's fast and rushed-sounding performance could have been much better. Leonhardt takes the menace, danger, and urgency to the highest levels; there's tension throughout his performance.

In many respects, Richter's reading is similar to Leonhardt's, but there's an anger in the Richter which I feel is too pervasive. It tends to be the central emotional theme and swallows up the others. Gulda is excellent – very dark and ominous. In all respects but one, the Gould issue is as good as the Leonhardt; Some of Gould's trills have nothing but "cute" written all over them. I found it distracting and very odd for Gould. Tureck makes sure that every possible note cuts like a knife. The atmosphere is entirely on the edge of panic in this revelatory interpretation. Add in the highest levels of musicality, and the result is one of the best performances I've ever heard from Tureck. It even beats Leonhardt with ease. Gary Cooper had the misfortune of being right after Tureck in my listening regimen, but he does quite well although he's a little benign.

Fugue in A minor – I could keep going with my fortune teller concerning her tenure in prison, but I've grown tired of her so I'll just concentrate on the A minor architecture and general mood levels. The architectural flow tends to go like this: subject – inversion of subject -stretti involving subject – stretti involving inverted subject – other types of stretti going through the keys (my thanks to Aldwell's liner notes). The fugue is not a happy one; it is primarily very serious with quite a few subtle rays of light.

We can leave Aldwell aside; he insists on a prevalent key-banging regimen which is quite annoying. Jandó is better although he doesn't provide much variety of shading or expression. Hewitt takes us into a highly expressive realm with great poetry. Horszowski provides a more straight-line approach than Hewitt with top priority on momentum and reaching the conclusion with inevitability. This is a very good performance at Hewitt's level. Tilney extends the fugue to over six minutes; He's not particularly memorable in the darker passages, but he finds every ray of light beautifully. Jarrett is quick at under 4 ½ minutes; he sounds like he's just playing around, pulling rhythms, and waiting for the main event. In this less than distinguished group, Hewitt and Horszowski are the most rewarding, but I'm confident that much better is to come.

Schepkin is as fast as Jarrett but much more poetic and serious as well. Fischer is less restrained than Schepkin and equally enjoyable. Roberts is tasteful and poetic, giving the fugue a relatively high degree of optimism. Richter places much emphasis on momentum and he's quite assertive; he also displays a fine degree of tenderness when needed. Schiff is quick and incisive, but not as lyrical as his norm. Leonhardt does very well, but I would have liked more shading and expressive variety. The "much better" hasn't arrived yet.

Gulda uses much staccato in a fine and somewhat militaristic performance. Gould wins the Speed Award but ends up glossing over some poignant passages. Tureck, like Gulda, uses staccato well but her lyricism isn't at its usually high level. Cooper is enjoyable but not memorable. Suzuki's my last hope for something special but his performance drags at times.

Update on Richter: Throughout the review, Richter's set has been one of the better issues. However, he hasn't been quite as impressive as I might have anticipated. There's been some lack of warmth which the recorded sound likely accentuates. On the positive end, Richter is always a commanding guide to Bach's music and has many insights to offer.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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