Along the San Diego border with Mexico, a project has been in construction for the past three years. It's the building of a new border fence for a distance of 14 miles extending from the undeveloped easterly lands right into the Pacific Ocean. The fence actually extends about 200 feet into the water. The Border Patrol is stationed at the shoreline 24 hours a day to catch illegal immigrants who try to boat over to the U.S. side or swim their way into heaven. Not far east of there, any visit to the fence is met with the eyes of hundreds of Mexican children peering through the openings in the existing fence.
Of course, the new fence is considered to be superior to the old in terms of thwarting the influx of illegal immigrants. Whether or not this will hold true in reality is up for grabs. The "Transporters" who charge Mexicans for a 'safe' passage across the border are always coming up with new ways to evade Border Patrol agents. I've been involved in the acquisition of land for the new fence these three years. For better or worse, I have had the opportunity to look at those eyes across the fence and listen to agents tell me of their harrowing workday. Many of them don't last long as their emotions get the best of them; others have become immune to humanity. Worst of all, two agents I know have been killed by "Transporters" in those three years. I have found being in that area of San Diego very depressing; it's also frustrating because the only true answer to the problem is much greater economic vitality in Mexico. Yet, our politicians move little toward that conclusion and instead posture themselves for self-gain or sanctimonious verbalizing. The four-part little story I present about border life and influence covers the preludes & fugues in B Flat Major and B flat minor.
Prelude in B Flat Major – Our hero has left his wife and three children to seek temporary employment in the United States. He waits for dark, then enters the Pacific and swims out about 250 feet, takes the turn and is soon on the U.S. side. When he hits shore, he runs as fast as he can with two agents in hot pursuit. They don't get their man. The scene switches to the halls of Congress where another useless session is devoted to how to deal with the illegal immigrant problem. The yammering is incessant as the politicians primp themselves for the TV cameras.
The B Flat Major Prelude is a highly propulsive toccata enhanced by its one-note-at-a-time texture. In the second section, chords abruptly enter and the music becomes improvisatory in nature; I can figuratively hear the politicians constantly going on and on and saying nothing of substance.
Rosalyn Tureck is sensational in the B Flat Major. Versions like the Aldwell, Fischer, Leonhardt, Suzuki, Cooper, Schepkin, and Jandó sound very good, but Tureck surpasses them with crystal-clear fingering and chord projection. Excitement and drama permeate her reading, and the execution is flawless and exquisite. In Robert's version, there's little propulsion and insufficient projection. As is his usual penchant, Roberts keeps himself at a distance. The man just doesn't let loose at all. Horszowski is better but a little too slow and reserved. Schiff is too dainty for my tastes, Hewitt too demure.
Gould and Richter take the fast route and give jet-propelled performances; I still prefer Tureck but these two are close seconds. Tilney's reading is disposable; at over 1 ½ minutes he stretches the music into a benign and ordinary composition. Jarrett's performance has a number of problems: demure, dainty, relaxed, and worst of all, he hesitates when he could be propulsive. Gulda, although not as quick as Gould or Richter, sounds equally propulsive and thrilling.
Fugue in B Flat Major – Eight months have passed and our hero has crossed the border back to Mexico to be reunited with his family. The joy he feels is immense. He has no interest in living in the United States; his home is with his wife and children where he belongs. But he knows he will be leaving them again.
This music is pure joy and happiness. It's not the overt type but deep and subtle. This three-voice fugue has a delicate and flowing nature which must not be disturbed. The Aldwell liner notes describe the music as "exuberant and humorous". I don't hear it that way at all; I think it has more depth than those qualities provide, and I detect no humor in the fugue. Just one more observation – the mix of legato and the skips in the subject constitute the heart of the music's appeal; contrast is so important.
Roberts's flow is rather choppy with little hesitations; I think they work against the music. Horszowski makes a mess of this lovely music; he's very fast, proportions between right and left hand are often out of sync, and he frankly sounds like he's in practice mode with much more needed before hitting the big time. Schepkin's a major improvement but far from superb; his main deficiency involves an underplaying of the skips in the subject. The result is less contrast and interest. Richter is simply too forceful for this delicate music and sounds like he wants to beat the hell out of the piano; this is heavy duty stuff. There's something not right about Hewitt's performance and it took me a few listenings to figure it out. She gets cute and subdued at times; this ruins the music's flow. Most pianists taking well over 2 minutes and inserting much staccato would wreck this fugue, but Tureck does very well. Still, there's no magic anywhere in this group; I'm looking for a performance which really lifts my spirits.
Jarrett is no better than Horszowski; the fast speed is annoying and Jarrett essentially avoids the skips of the subject which is a very poor decision. Aldwell's performance has 'bland' written all over it; the reading is a continuous string of legato and little else. There's insufficient joy in Tilney's interpretation. With Leonhardt we finally reach the Major Leagues. The blend of legato and skips are executed superbly and joy is in the air; my only reservation is that Leonhardt's harpsichord has quite a sharp sound. Suzuki is good but a little choppy; he also sounds rushed at times. It must be High Noon because Gary Cooper is at his best. His reading possesses all the great attributes of Leonhardt's but with a much more pleasurable harpsichord tone.
Fischer, at a fast pace, starts out beautifully but soon gets close to Richter in forcefulness. Gould and Gulda are also quite fast and forceful. Surprisingly, Jandó gives a slow performance which at times sounds like a funeral dirge; at other times it's wonderful. Schiff joins Cooper at the top level with an exquisitely delicate reading; overall accenting is terrific and the skips are perfect.
Prelude in B flat minor – It's time for our hero to cross the border again to earn some wages. He takes the same route as he has in the past. However, this time the water is choppy and there's an under-toe which he has badly miscalculated. He swims out into the ocean but is unable to control his direction as he keeps getting swept further and further out to sea. Finally, with all sense of direction and stamina gone, he sinks to his demise. No one has seen him drown, no one has any idea what's happened to him, and no one on the American side gives a damn.
The B flat minor Prelude is considered "funeral music" by Angela Hewitt, and I tend to agree. The conclusion, after the dramatically diminished seventh chord, gives me the feeling of sinking down into the eternal abyss. I have no idea what Roberts is up to, but he really zeroes out in this music. I'm a piano player, not even a pianist, yet I could do what he does. Robert's is way too fast and totally uninvolved. Switch to hewitt and listen to a reading with some feeling for the music. However, I do find her projection to be extremely subdued for most of the prelude, and she's very slow. I love Aldwell's reading; the tempo seems perfect and accenting is really outstanding. His blending of tenderness and drama is stunning, and the conclusion is mesmerizing. There's no way another version could be better than aldwell's. Gulda, Jandó, and Jarrett are excellent with deeply felt and well paced performances. Gould is as slow as Hewitt, but he projects much better. Also, Gould is fantastic at accumulating and releasing energy throughout the prelude. This slow version is a wonderful alternative to the Aldwell and just as rewarding. Tilney does well, but I would have liked more 'negative' energy.
Suzuki is good, but something is lacking; the range of emotional variety is low and results in a little blandness. Horszowski and Schepkin do well but there's nothing exceptional except for their slow and inexorable endings. Fischer uses a slow tempo in a heart-felt performance which drags just a little. Richter, although quick, hits all the emotions spot on as does Tureck with a slow tempo. Schiff and Leonhardt are excellent; there's an abundance of subtle tension in their readings. Cooper uses a slow tempo to great advantage with a highly expressive performance oozing with urgency. This one joins Gould and Aldwell as my favorite readings.
Fugue in B flat minor – Two years have passed and our hero's wife continues to look for sight of him on a daily basis. She increasingly tells the children stories about their dad; she doesn't want them to forget. She has trouble getting to sleep tonight as she fantasizes about him walking through the door.
The B flat minor is a five-voice fugue without any countersubjects. Stretti are prevalent and highly effective in conveying a sense of inevitable repetition. The music is sublime, utterly tender, and so strong with its subtlety. Hewitt's liner notes mention how this fugue "pierces the heart" and she is right on target.
Gould is pure magic. To say that he strikes deep into the core of the music would be an understatement. The heart is pierced not just at a few points but continuously right from the start. Gould's five minute reading explores every note and tells a detailed story. Hewitt's performance clocks in at about three minutes and is very lovely and a masterful interpretation. And that's the difference here between Hewitt and Gould - masterful vs. magical. Horszowski is no slouch as he gives a heart-felt performance fully the equal of Hewitt's. Jandó comes in at under three minutes; he's very effective but the tempo and gait detract some from the tenderness of the fugue. At 3 ½ minutes, Tureck joins Gould in exalted territory. Her pacing is perfect as the levels of momentum and comfort fit together as one. The tenderness she invests the music with is a wonder to listen to. Roberts is at the Hewitt/Horszowski level with an ebb and flow to die for. He may be as fast as Jandó, but he is quite distinctive.
Gulda also gives an excellent performance with fine pacing and momentum. Schepkin is quicker than Jandó but displays greater tenderness. Still, most of the alternative versions are more rewarding, and that list includes Richter, Cooper, Suzuki, Tilney, Aldwell, Jarrett, Fischer, and Schiff. Leonhardt is another magical performer here with an inevitability and swagger superior to any other version.
Prelude in B Major – A three part invention of unadulterated bliss with a strong sense of comfort tinged with some urgency and regret. Roberts is great with a leisurely pace. Just over one minute, Hewitt is a little too fast to convey much comfort. The cd player tells me that Gulda is just as quick as Hewitt, but he sounds slower and appropriately relaxed; it's an excellent and optimistic reading. Slower than Roberts, Aldwell maximizes the music's comfort level. Suzuki is slightly too forceful in his projection. Schiff, faster than Hewitt, shares her low degree of comfort.
Tureck gives a performance with a difference – prevalent use of staccato which gives me mixed feelings. It's certainly interesting, even illuminating. However, comfort is replaced by a bit of a caffeine rush effect. Horszowski provides a lovely and highly lyrical reading. Richter, Jarrett, and Gould share Schiff's very fast tempo and do not do anything more with it than Schiff could handle. Jandó does well but there's a little deficit of feeling. Other excellent versions include Leonhardt, Tilney, Cooper, Fischer, and Schepkin.
Fugue in B Major – Another joyful piece of music with great transparency. Interesting technical highlights include two inversions of the subject and the fact that the first four notes of the Fugue are the same as the first four of the B Major Prelude. Hewitt's and Schepkin's readings are as transparent as possible; Aldwell displays little. Richter slows things down considerably with a relatively serious interpretation which still is rich in life's rewards; I love it. Jarrett is quick and rather superficial. Leonhardt's is an incisive account which is highly pleasurable.
Gulda is very good although I would have liked a little more of a poetic approach instead of his straight-ahead delivery. Schiff, like Hewitt, is highly transparent and a delightful listening experience. Horszowski seems to be hitting his stride toward the conclusion of Book I; his B major Fugue is similar to Richter's and just as rewarding. Gould speeds along, missing many nuances. Fischer's tempo is slow and his reading highly and pleasurably tender. Other excellent versions come from Tilney, Suzuki, Cooper, Roberts, Tureck, and Jando.
Prelude in B minor – This is a three part work made up of a walking bass and two upper voices used for imitation. The Prelude is in binary form, the only time this is used in Book I; that's the old AABB sequence which Bach uses so often in works like the Goldberg Variations. There seem to be two basic ways the Prelude is performed. One is to put quite a bounce into the walking bass and end up with a relatively jaunty rhythm. The other is for the walking bass to stroll leisurely in a legato manner; this approach usually results in a deeper and more reflective interpretation.
Jandó goes with the bounce in a superficial performance. Aldwell is leisurely and highly reflective. Hewitt bounces a little, but the most prevalent ingredient of her reading for me is its very fast tempo which just means that an ordinary reading is finished quickly – that's good. Gulda takes over eight minutes to complete his performance; Aldwell is under seven minutes. Although very slow, Gulda's reading has a militaristic atmosphere to it which is interesting. Tilney's is a great performance teeming with incisiveness and crispness. Cooper brings the bounce back but with much more feeling than Jando.
Jarrett's and Robert's walking bass is legato but there's little depth to the interpretations. Richter also uses a legato walking bass but is much slower than Jarrett and much more expressive. Gould's walking bass is staccato, the performance is quick, and it's no better than Jando's. Gould polishes off the Prelude in a little over two minutes; he leaves the repeats for others. Schiff is quick, uses a legato bass, and elicits much expression from the music. Other very good versions include Tureck, Schepkin, and Fischer. Horszowski continues his excellent roll with a heart-felt reading fully the equal of the Aldwell and Tilney performances. Leonhardt's performance is excellent; I have no idea how he packs so much detail and depth into a very fast reading, but he succeeds fully. Suzuki is better than all of them. His harpsichord sounds so pristine and his performance is exquisitely and gorgeously delivered.
Fugue in B minor – It might have been a nice touch to end Book I with some joyful/optimistic music, but Bach wouldn't have any of that. The four-voice B minor Fugue is emotionally powerful and most of the emotions are intensely negative. For me, it brings to mind the worst thing that can happen within a family – parents burying their child.
The intensity of the music is strengthened by two-note sighs and dissonant intervals. As for representing the conclusion of the Book, the fugue has an extended chromatic theme using the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Back in the old days, there were some rumblings about ending Book I in such bleak fashion. The 19th-century Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta, was so dismayed by the Fugue that he considered it a "crown of thorns upon one of his superior works". Well, it may just be a crown of thorns, but that's fine with me. Besides, there are uplifting passages which tell us that all is not lost.
Tureck's performance is one of her best recorded accomplishments. Right from the start, the dissonance is strong as if the established order has been broken down and reversed. This reading is riveting from beginning to end. Also, the uplifting passages seem as if they come from a heavenly source; they are so welcome and surprising after thoroughly and intensely negative musical experiences which take the listener into their bottomless hole. Doesn't that sound inviting?
András Schiff gives one great interpretation. Even so, he can't match the negativity that Tureck provides, and keep in mind that it's the intensity of the bad stuff that makes the rays of light so rewarding. Other versions equal to Schiff's include Fischer, Richter, Horszowski, Hewitt, Leonhardt, Suzuki, and Tilney.
Schepkin joins Tureck at the top level. He's more intense than Schiff, and the pacing/rhythm is irresistible. I just float into the legato driven world Schepkin has created.
Aldwell has the audacity to break the ten minute barrier with an extremely slow performance; Tureck is just a little over seven minutes. Sometimes you take a chance and it pays off splendidly; that's the case here with Aldwell. If I can sit through over ten minutes totally mesmerized, I know I'm listening to superior music-making. Gulda's performance is also at the top. It's very slow, determined, and constantly probing although on a narrower path than Tureck. The momentum and drive are intense.
Versions less than excellent must include Jarrett, Roberts, and Jando. Their rather superficial treatment insures too little contrast in the music. Gould polishes off the Fugue in under four minutes and uses extensive staccato. In my view, it doesn't add up to much except that he sounds as if he's trying to make the music heroic to the exclusion of every other feature; I feel it sounds like a caricature. Cooper does well with the bleak music, but his rays of light are weak and without much tonal beauty.
Final Summary for Book I: The most significant conclusion I have is that every one of the reviewed sets provides much listening pleasure. With that in mind, my thoughts on each set follow.
Edward Aldwell's Book II is a fine accomplishment not quite matched by his Book I. As I've mentioned before, I find Aldwell's strength in Bach to be a relatively slow and legato-driven poetry with fine depth, somewhat dream like in nature. In Book I, he misses many opportunities to shine in preludes and fugues which well handle his strength.
Gary Cooper acquits himself very well at Aldwell's level. Cooper has wonderful sound at his command and is often deep and poetic. However, there are many pieces which he tends to play on the surface as well.
Edwin Fischer's Book II was not one of the better versions, but Book I definitely rises to the occasion. In his Book II, I thought there were a number of wayward interpretations which kept his performances from being excellent; that infrequently happens in Book I.
Glenn Gould's is one of the best sets. He's actually quite unpredictable; I never know where he's going to land. For example, I would have thought it just as likely that his B minor Fugue would be one of the slowest. Instead, it's the fastest by a large margin. When he's on target, and that's very often, nobody is better.
Friedrich Gulda has the unpredictability quality as well and is just as rewarding as Gould. He travels a narrower path than Gould, but provides greater determination and inevitability.
Angela Hewitt is at the level inhabited by Aldwell and Cooper. Now and then, I have some problems with her conception of the music and her relatively extreme dynamic spectrum.
Mieczysław Horszowski, although good listening on its own, is not one of the better versions. Yes, he can be deep and intense, but others do it better. Also, the set presents him with some technical challenges which are not handled very well.
Keith Jarrett's set is also not particularly good. To me, it has a lot to do with the choice of instrument. Jarrett is smoothness and flow; he needs to use those elements to good advantage. I find his Book II on harpsichord superior to Book I on piano, because the harpsichord tends to keep Jarrett's performances from reeking with smoothness given that the harpsichord has more of an edge than the piano.
Jandó is at Jarrett's level, but his set is at super bargain price on Naxos. Also, I usually have the feeling that Jandó is trying to plug into Bach; with Jarrett, that's not readily apparent.
I place Leonhardt quite high on the list, a little above Fischer. He could have been near the top except that he lost a few opportunities to shine in pieces where inevitability can have so much impact. I consider that Leonhardt's best strength in Bach, and he uses it much better in the Art of Fugue. A piece like the B minor Fugue feeds right into an inevitability approach, but Leonhardt largely eschews that line.
Sviatoslav Richter provides one of the better versions, but I'm confident he can offer much more than he delivers on the Revelation set. I just don't think he is as involved as required to bring forth his best interpretations. Other listeners have raved about an alternative set from BMG; perhaps that's the one to gravitate toward.
Bernard Roberts is at the bottom of my preferences. He often lacks sufficient depth and has some technical challenges. I know other folks and reviewers who consider his set in the same league as Tureck's. I find that rather strange and ultimately inexplicable. What Roberts does have in his favor is probably the best sound of all the sets. Also, he's always highly musical and enjoyable. But Bach offers much more than Roberts provides.
Sergey Schepkin's set is a fine one as is his Book II. There are a few mannerisms he engages in, but he generally strikes deeply into Bach's music and has superb sound.
András Schiff is at his best in both Books I and II. I have every Bach recording Schiff has made, and his WTC is far and away his superior effort. In the other Bach works, he pulls rhythm around, indulges in trills, is much too strong with either his right or left hand, and is much too 'cute' for his own good. That's all gone in his WTC. He really gets down to business and cranks out mostly wonderful readings.
Masaaki Suzuki delivers fine performances and consistently reveals his artistry as a Bach performer in addition to the excellent conducting skills he possesses. The harpsichord sound is rather odd. Sometimes it's absolutely gorgeous, particularly in slower and softer works. The louder and faster pieces often find the harpsichord rather overbearing.
Colin Tilney is not a great Bach performing artist, but he is very good. His clavichord performances are not as fine as Kirkpatrick's, but his sound is a significant improvement. Since clavichord performances of Book I are infrequent, Tilney rates some serious thought.
Alphabetical sequence leaves the best for last. Tureck is best in Book II, and Book I finds her again at the top with a strong advantage over all the other sets. She has a very simple formula to success: she covers both ends of the spectrum. Tureck is the least likely to be wayward or surface-bound or unmusical – she hardly ever screws up. At the other end, she is the most likely to deliver the most magical performances of depth. The result is an automatic leap to excellence not matched by others. And she's not always slow paced. Sometimes, her tempos represent the norm.
So Tureck's set is the essential acquisition. The closest competition comes from Gould and Gulda. I also strongly recommend Leonhardt, Fischer, Schiff, Schepkin, and Suzuki. I'll be keeping all my sets; Roberts is especially appetizing while driving.
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.