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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book II, Part 3

Prelude & Fugue in E Major – Most Bach lovers likely have a host of aspects of his music which they hold in high esteem. One of my favorites is the subtlety Bach employs to express various themes and emotions. The E Major prelude is joyful and uplifting; Bach is not blunt or ostentatious. The music unfolds so naturally and in a serene manner while still possessing significant drama. Every version is highly rewarding. Gould's is the most unusual with a perverse speed which actually is highly musical although not subtle. There are three versions which are outstanding, seamless, and loaded with subtlety; each one took me on a journey to treasured locations: Aldwell, Gulda, and Hewitt. It's a little ironic that Hewitt mentions the "gentleness" of the prelude, but it is Aldwell who best displays it. His is a dreamy interpretation that's irresistible. Gulda uses precision and clarity to provide a "perfect" reading. Hewitt has all the elements I look for in a highly poetic and dramatic interpretation. The best thing about these three performances is how naturally the music evolves; it gives me the feeling that I'm listening to Bach performing his music, and I know of no greater compliment.

The E Major Fugue harkens back to the 1600's in style and is more serious than the E Major Prelude. Bach uses inversion, stretti, augmentation, and diminution to present an outstanding four-part fugue highlighted, for me, by a series of descending chords set against the soprano voice toward the conclusion of the music. The different versions provided a variety of emotional themes: some were soft and beautiful (Hewitt, Schepkin, Aldwell) some rather heroic (Roberts, Jandó, Gulda), some had much tension (Nikolayeva, Fischer), and others were thought-provoking (Gould, Schiff, Tureck). I liked them all very much and can't say that I'd want to listen in the future to one or more versions more than the others. So, all eleven are great without any of them entering the transcendent stage.

Prelude & Fugue in E minor – This two-part and fast paced prelude provides great tension with poetry, a contrast that is highly effective. Aldwell, Gould, Gulda, Schiff, Roberts, Schepkin, and Hewitt give readings which well combine tension and poetry. Gould and Gulda go to the "racetrack", providing abundant tension and sufficient poetry. I probably would have considered Hewitt's the best version except that in a few spots where I'm looking for extra tension, she doesn't express it. Two versions, Fischer and Nikolayeva, display much tension but little poetry. Tureck is highly poetic but leaves tension behind. Jando's reading sounds like a run-through with little poetry or urgency. Overall, Schiff is doing very well although I prefer a majority of the other versions. Unlike with his recordings of the Inventions and Goldberg Variations, he isn't giving mannered readings with quirks, changing tempos which destroys momentum, or displaying an annoying cuteness. He's just up against strong fellow pianists.

I take the Fugue in E minor as having demonic elements within an exuberant atmosphere. That's not a combination I care for, and I can take or leave ten of the versions. Aldwell is different in that his reading is relatively seamless and not strong on exuberance. He elicits the full beauty of the music without damaging its demonic elements. But even Aldwell can't persuade me to love this music. Admiration's the best I can offer. But I more than admire Aldwell's performances up to this point. He's poetic, seamless, gentle, and displays an excellent flow of the music. If he has a failing, it's that he's not high on the excitement scale (not low either). But the superb traits I mentioned plus Aldwell's fine display of counterpoint and detail and rich recorded sound currently place him as one of the best versions. I've heard that Aldwell has some kind of cult following which usually indicates an eccentric approach to interpretation, but I don't notice anything like that. He's not far off the main street, and he's always tasteful and musical. I can't imagine anyone being really turned-off by his music-making on this recording. One other thing I should mention; in Fischer's set, the Fugue in E minor is the first track on the 3rd disc. I don't think well of that decision; in fact, it's rather insulting for a logistical consideration to take total precedence over musical continuity.

Prelude & Fugue in F Major – The technical foundation of the prelude are descending groups of four notes and their contrasting inversions. The music is essentially joyful and quite beautiful; any good performance must have those elements. Gulda does not – he's very fast, mechanical, bereft of beauty, and provides the joy of automation. Gould is as fast, but he has a lighter touch and a lovely use of staccato. Both clock in at about two minutes. Schiff, Nikolayeva, Jandó, Fischer, and Hewitt all give fine readings in the three minute range. Timing in at over four minutes are Schepkin and Aldwell; Schepkin gives a very good and emotionally rich performance while Aldwell stresses the beauty in the music. For an exceptional performance, I want more than joy and beauty; I look for vibrancy and/or some "bite" to the interpretation. Roberts has a strong vibrancy and often deliciously builds up tension. Tureck provides just the right bite to the music with a gorgeous performance; the sound behaves quite well.

The Fugue in F Major is in the form of a gigue and is very joyful and outgoing. What makes the music highly enjoyable for me is a confident swagger that's immediately has impact at the beginning. All but one version possesses abundant swagger, joy, and exuberance. Hewitt's performance has a problem; the swagger isn't really there, and I sense that Hewitt concentrates too much on emphasizing the beauty of the piece. Without that swagger, the music just isn't infectious.

Prelude & Fugue in F minor – This prelude is a world unto itself, just loaded with a wide palate of colors and emotions in a breathing cocoon of technical majesty. Sorrow, joy, comfort, serenity, mystery, anger, menace, tension, urgency, remorse, beauty, stunning legato passages, and "three note sighs" are ready for your intensive listening. Concerning those three note sighs, they are a significant element of the prelude. In his liner notes, Aldwell warns against too much attention paid to the right-hand sighs. Then, he plays them so weakly that they are ineffectual. Joining Aldwell on the low rung are Nikolayeva, Jandó, Schepkin, and Gould. Nikolayeva gives a romantic performance which I don't appreciate; this isn't Chopin. Jandó is rather choppy and offers a small range of colors and emotions. Schepkin sounds rushed at times and reverts to some of the mannerisms and trills he displayed in his Goldberg Variations recording. Gould is extremely fast; I initially found it very interesting but when the "newness" wore off, there wasn't much left to engage my mind. He has the menace, but that's about it.

Decca 417236

Schiff, Roberts, and Hewitt are one step up with very fine performances; Schiff is highly poetic and Roberts is strong on tension. Hewitt's is a graceful and lovely performance which is a little too soft in focus to make the top level.

Tureck, Gulda, and Fischer are exceptional. Tureck is the slowest paced at over six minutes and provides a full panorama of colors and emotions; her sound, which normally would be a problem, gets swept up in the sensational reading. The same happens with Fischer's sound as he is equally outstanding; Fischer does omit repeats. Gulda's performance is perfectly paced, strong on emotion, and clearly/highly detailed.

The Fugue in F minor revolves around the main theme and its being repeated throughout the fugue. It's emphatic music still imbued with poetry. Schepkin is on the fast side and gives a somewhat exciting performance; this applies to Gould as well. Aldwell starts off great with a slow pace and strong sense of foreboding but he unfortunately becomes routine for the remainder. Hewitt, Nikolayeva, Jandó, Schiff, and Roberts are moderately paced and moderately enjoyable. Tureck is very slow, poetic, and dramatic, and has sound that breaks at the worst times. Gulda is even slower than Tureck and delivers an examination of every note with great highlighting of the counterpoint. Fischer allows plenty of time to rev up the tension and urgency in the music. Overall, I have to give the nod to Gulda and Fischer – unusual interpretations that work very well.

That completes the first half of Book II. Every version has fine contributions to make; none are of the throw-away variety. And, it's looking like Gulda, Tureck, Aldwell, and Gould will compete for top position.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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