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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book II, Part 8

Prelude & Fugue in E Major – I think this Prelude is one of Bach's greatest creations; its joy, spiritual uplifting, beauty, subtlety, and seamless momentum make it a magical work. Gulda gives a perfect reading, and I wish any other artist all the best in trying to approach perfection. Levin and Martins hardly merit adequacy. Levin uses the organ; it doesn't sound right for this music, and the registrations are not to my liking. Also, he is too fast and superficial. Martins is quite slow and plodding; once again, he slows down the tempo at the wrong times. Jarrett's performance is very good; it's not particularly deep but has that seamless flow working full-time.

Next is a four-part fugue very much in the tradition of the 1600's. It's a serious and glorious fugue with a series of descending chords toward the end of the piece which I always find wonderful listening. In my original reviews, I found all the versions highly rewarding with none of them of magical quality. The three additional versions do not change the mix. Levin (on organ) and Jarrett give fine performances. Martins is even better with a slow and incisive reading; his only failing is some key banging just before the series of descending chords. I wouldn't say that Martins is the best of the 14 versions, but he's toward the top.

Prelude & Fugue in E minor – I'm still looking for an exceptional performance of this prelude which is a two part invention. That level performance has to know just when to emphasize the tension and poetry in the music. Surprisingly, Martins races through the piece with sufficient tension but little poetry. The quality of his reading and the skipping of both repeats make Martin's version a non-starter. Jarrett is competitive with fine momentum but a rather superficial interpretation. Levin, on fortepiano, is as quick as Martins and has the same problem with the poetic aspects; however, you couldn't ask for better tension.

In the past, I've seen the E minor Fugue as a somewhat demonic and highly energetic piece. Aldwell's version has been my standard, but that spot is now taken by Jarrett. His performance, although low on demonic expression, is perpetual motion with fantastic pacing and accenting. Jarrett almost makes me want to dance, and if you knew me well, you'd realize that happens very infrequently. There's nothing wrong with the Martins and Levin interpretations; they just are in the middle of the pack.

Prelude & Fugue in F Major – Joy, beauty, and tension are the key ingredients of the Prelude. Tureck's is the one version that has all three elements perfectly conveyed and balanced. The three additional versions aren't far behind her, but none can match the tension Tureck provides. Levin uses the clavichord, and it is well suited to the music. Martins is very slow and delivers a great and tasteful performance. Jarrett has that nice pacing of his with fine tension.

A lively gigue-like fugue follows which is outgoing and joyful. I've been enjoying Schepkin lately who is fast and highly poetic. Martins is also fast, but the poetry and joy are low. Jarrett and Levin are much better, though not at Schepkin's level. Jarrett uses a slow tempo, but it doesn't reduce the outgoing nature of the music. Levin is fast and exciting, although I'm still not enamored of his clavichord.

Prelude & Fugue in F minor – This Prelude is majestic and inhabits its own world. Tureck, Fischer, and Gulda take me there; the three versions being reviewed do not. Jarrett makes two miscalculations: he gives the music a "happy-go-lucky" atmosphere, and he places a strong emphasis on forward momentum. Both decisions tend to rob the fugue of its majesty and depth. Levin (fortepiano) and Martins are much better but don't possess the magic of my three favorite versions.

Gulda is my standard for the F minor Fugue; he's slow, examines every note, and brings out every nuance. Martins, Levin, and Jarrett are each much faster and impact me much less. However, Levin and Jarrett give vibrant performances; Martins is a little wooden.

Prelude & Fugue in F sharp major – I prefer the Prelude relatively slow and spacious; Tureck fits the bill beautifully, and so does Martin who is even slower. Levin and Jarrett are no better or worse than most other versions which use a fast tempo.

Hyperion 67303/4

The Fugue in F sharp major is a masterful gavotte emphasizing tension, angularity, and counterpoint. I have found Tureck, Hewitt, Nikolayeva, and Fischer to give outstanding performances, and they remain undisturbed. Levin and Jarrett are not competitive. Jarrett smooths over the music, completely destroying any angularity and significantly down playing the counterpoint. Levin is so fast that he misses most of the music's nuances. Martins does well with a slow tempo although he's well below the level of the best versions; some pronounced note banging is a detriment.

Prelude & Fugue in F sharp minor – The Prelude is sad, tense, and beautiful. There are many excellent versions; Fischer's is a great one for a quick tempo, and Gould is as good as it gets for a slow tempo. Martins and Levin are impressive. Martins is slow and as fine as Gould except that Gould's ending is magical. I very much like Levin's use of the clavichord for this prelude; it brings out the tension and sadness wonderfully. Jarrett is not competitive; he doesn't make sufficient adjustment to the music's angularity and is too surfaced-based.

The three-part fugue has great depth and haunting beauty; Gulda gives a magical and panoramic reading. Martins and Jarrett aren't at that level, but each provides a quick and attractive performance lacking some depth. I don't appreciate Levin's reading; it emphasizes the playfulness in the music, and I think that the piece becomes somewhat trivialized.

Prelude & Fugue in G Major – The prelude has a delicious mix of lyricism/gentleness and a sense of foreboding. I compared the three new versions for review with Jando's great performance which beautifully and dynamically expresses the main themes; the menace in his reading comes directly from the bass line and you can feel it. None of the three is excellent, but they are competitive. Martins and Jarrett are lacking in the menace department; Levin, on harpsichord, is menacing right from the start, but he's a little choppy and his lyricism suffers. Do listen to Jandó at high volume; that bass line will shoot through your body.

The Fugue is vivacious and joyful, but it also has some drama and edge to it. Martins and Jarrett deliver half a loaf as they scrimp on the tension. Levin has tension from the start, just as he does in the Prelude; my only complaint is that he speeds up toward the conclusion. Gulda has been my standard with a slow pace, emphasis on the counterpoint, and excellent contrast of the dramatic passages set against the delicate ones. Levin isn't as good, but he's not far behind with even better tension than Gulda. Where Gulda betters Levin is in the projection of the counterpoint.

Prelude & Fugue in G minor – French double dotting gives an heroic and ceremonial quality to the Prelude. I have found many versions excellent, but none has made the music magical for me. That situation still stands. Levin and Jarrett, both on harpsichord, are better than most; they are angular and incisive. But Martins is extremely slow and does nothing with it: no illumination, highlighting of counterpoint, new themes, just nothing. I had said that Hewitt's slow version stagnated a little; Martin's has a comatose quality to it.

The G minor Fugue revolves around theme inversion. Bernard Roberts on Nimbus is my standard; he's energetic, highlights the joy in the music without becoming sweet, and displays a poetic swagger that makes his reading special to me. The slow Martins and surprisingly incisive Jarrett give fine performances, but they don't scale the heights. Levin is very fast and exciting. I'd place him at Robert's level except that I found his harpsichord a trial to listen to; it sounds as if there's no space at all.

In closing, I'm happy to say to Martins has made considerable improvements in his performances as the set progresses. He seems to have greatly reduced his penchant for changing tempo in slow pieces, and his abundant mannerisms are being held in check. Martins is even handling fast tempos quite well. There's nothing outstanding going on, but the performances are increasingly pleasurable.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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