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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book II, Part 4

Prelude & Fugue in F sharp major – Although not usually performed this way, I like the prelude played in a "spacious" manner where the counterpoint is highlighted and nuances are strongly accentuated. Involved in this approach is a slower tempo, but that alone does not win the day. Only three versions approach the prelude in a spacious manner and one of them, Aldwell, only partially gets there. However, Aldwell's pacing is excellent and his version deserves a better rating than eight of the others. The two excellent versions come from Nikolayeva and Tureck. Nikolayeva is just a little slower than most of the other performances, but there's an abundant spaciousness to her reading which is abetted by highlighting of the counterpoint, relatively heavy accenting, and dynamic shifts which increase tension. Tureck is very slow paced, and every element of the music unfolds naturally and beautifully. Frankly, I could easily do without all the versions except for a frequent dose of Tureck and Nikolayeva and just one listen to Aldwell on Washington's birthday each year (or Lincoln's or my own).

The Fugue in F sharp major is in the form of a gavotte. The music can easily seem simple and somewhat repetitive if listened to casually or just once or twice. But, Bach is a master at delivering a wealth of detail and variety within a tight framework. This fugue is a very good example of that mastery. It begins with a delicious trill followed by the entrance (one after another) of three voices; if you're not hooked by that point, you need to go back to the beginning. The piece needs tension and a strong highlighting of the counterpoint. Although I often favor a relatively seamless performance of Bach's solo instrumental music, that's not the case this time as I want a performance that's sharp in detail with sound that's not overly smooth. Aldwell is in an impossible position; he generally provides seamless performances with a very smooth and somewhat hazy recorded sound – that's just the case with his F sharp major rendition. It's certainly an enjoyable reading, but it misses the detail. Schiff, Jandó, and Roberts are also too smooth and limited in their approach; Roberts gives us the extra benefit of pulling the tempo off course and impeding momentum. Gould, Schepkin, and Gulda give very good readings. Gould is the fastest, displays much tension, but loses a little in detail. The same comments apply to Schepkin whose reading is fast paced. Gulda highlights the counterpoint but is too clinical to reach the top level.

The exceptional versions are Hewitt, Nikolayeva, Fischer, and Tureck. Hewitt's is a rich yet highly detailed performance with the best bass line you could want to hear. Nikolayeva's part playing is superb, and she best realizes the variety of themes and emotions of the music. Fischer's reading is a model of musical and emotional tension. Tureck uses a slow pace in a reading of aristocratic proportions with great display of the counterpoint.

Prelude & Fugue in F sharp minor – The Prelude is essentially a sad piece with a healthy degree of tension and drama. It's lovely music and any decent performance provides its beauty. All the versions do deliver the prelude's beauty. But Nikolayeva, Jandó, and Roberts have significant failings. Nikolayeva is too romantic in her approach and the performance wallows in sadness at the expense of other emotional themes. Jando is just too loud, a trait that he indulges in sometimes. Roberts plays it too straight, avoiding many of the nuances. Much better is Tureck, although she's not at the highest level; her tempo is, surprisingly, a little quick and the music doesn't always have sufficient breathing room.

I find the remaining versions exceptional. Hewitt, Schiff, Schepkin, and Aldwell are simply drop-dead gorgeous; listen to Schiff's right hand playing; it's outstanding. Gould is not fast and he employs his staccato approach beautifully; the man builds up to a climax then releases the pressure better than anyone. Also, Gould's ending is superb as it closes out the music so softly, yet convincingly. The same type of ending comes from Fischer who perfectly blends the sadness and tension of the music. Gulda employs his usual precision with a subtlety that's captivating and quite tense.

Philips 446548

The Fugue in F sharp minor is a three part fugue as beautiful as its partner, and the music presents a panorama of contrasting moods. Six versions have significant problems: Schepkin is essentially asleep for the first minute, Aldwell loses the music's beauty in the last 2 minutes, Fischer's is a relatively harsh reading with sound that fades out in softer passages, Schiff is much too heavy with his left hand, Jandó is totally lost, and Hewitt is much too whimsical as she makes this great music sound cute and perky, and even worse, humorous. One step up is Gould with a very quick performance that's effective, although not very poetic. Gulda, Nikolayeva, Tureck, and Roberts are exceptional. Gulda clocks in at about 7 minutes, 2 minutes longer than the next slowest version. Does he maintain interest? Assuredly, as he never loses the pulse of the music, finds all the nuances, and is highly poetic. Nikolayeva displays great pacing and wonderful part playing. Tureck's is the most beautiful although the sound unfortunately cracks in louder passages. Roberts, for a change, has Bach's music in his blood, providing great tension within a highly melodic border.

Tureck is slowly but surely building a comfortable lead over the other versions. She hardly ever delivers a sub-standard performance, and her readings are often at the top level. At the other end, Jandó is alone in the basement. He's having much trouble with the music as it becomes more complicated and needs masterful pianism. He is losing the music's pulse and his poetry is thinning out. Although I'm painting a bleak picture, there's much to enjoy in Jando's set, but simple enjoyment doesn't begin to cover what Bach offers. I haven't mentioned Schepkin very often; he's in the middle of the pack. Schepkin is not a predictable pianist as his tempos range widely – that's good. His interpretive decisions have mixed results, but he's always musical and thought provoking. With great recorded sound, Schepkin is highly rewarding.

Prelude & Fugue in G Major – Always an attractive key, the G Major Prelude expresses for me a mixture of gentleness/tranquility and a foreboding/anticipation of danger. I favor Fischer and Jandó as they best bring out the danger and excitement in the music. All the other versions are fine. Gould is super-fast, nervous, and delivers the tranquility of a seizure; it's an interesting reading. Hewitt, in bar 7, purposely plays a C sharp instead of C natural; her decision momentarily kills the foreboding and replaces it with "charm". I find that decision a poor one.

The Fugue in G Major is a lovely and joy-filled three part fugue. Gulda's is the only version approaching two minutes, and his slow pacing insures that the counterpoint is deliciously highlighted. Another reason for Gulda's superiority is that only his performance emphasizes the delicate nature of the fugue which contrasts so well with the dramatic passages. At the other end, Fischer is too harsh, Roberts is too bland, and Schepkin too soft-focused. The remaining versions are good including Gould who plays the fugue as fast as possible while maintaining musicality. The man is never ordinary.

Prelude & Fugue in G minor – The Prelude's foundation is the prevalence of French double dots which gives the music an heroic expression. Hewitt, in her liner notes, indicates a "solemnity" to the prelude, and her performance does highlight it. But, at the slow pace she employs, I feel that the music tends to stagnate a little. Overall, it's still a fine reading. Also fine are Tureck, Schepkin, Fischer, Jandó, and Gulda. Exceptional performances are provided by Roberts, Schiff, Nikolayeva, Gould, and Aldwell. Roberts is the performer for those who want this prelude to get straight to the heart of the heroic element; Roberts does this perfectly and stays on course. Schiff and Nikolayeva provide the most varied dynamics and emotions in gorgeous interpretations. Gould is amazing in how much emotion he expresses in such a compact reading; he's actually very tender. Aldwell mentions the "mystery" in the prelude, and he certainly emphasizes it in his performance. Better still, there's a surrealism which matches beautifully with the prelude's heroic foundation.

The Fugue in G minor revolves around the counterpoint and inversion; the music is essentially energetic and joyful. Unfortunately, it's not music that grows on me with each listening (might be a little too sweet for me). Each version was less enjoyable the second time around except for Roberts; he uses a nice crisp articulation and swagger that holds my interest through many listenings. Aldwell could have exceptional but in the second half of the fugue he gets on a tempo changing kick which I found unattractive. Although Aldwell is on the slow side, Tureck is a minute slower, clocking in at 4:30. No harm is done as Tureck knows very well how to maintain momentum and drive at slow speed.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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