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Johann Sebastian Bach

Performances of "Well-Tempered Clavier"

Book II, Part 9

Prelude & Fugue in A Flat Major – The Prelude is one of Bach's best pieces of life-affirming music; the tension and urgency in the music contribute greatly to its stature. Tureck and Gulda give masterful performances. Levin isn't quite at that level, but he and his fortepiano supply all the tension and urgency I could want. Martins and Jarrett are competitive. Jarrett gives another of his smooth performances; it's quite effective but tension is low. Martins is very slow and makes it work wonderfully; the problem is a tendency he has for some note banging which is out of place.

The Fugue is also life-affirming but less reflective than the Prelude. I had a great time listening to Schepkin, my favorite performance from the initial survey, and the three entrants who are just as good. Levin is fast, but so much better than Gould because his tension and urgency are deep and surrounding rather than momentary. Jarrett presents a kaleidoscope of colors and sound that I find irresistible. Martins is quite slow and poetic with strong projection when called for.

Naxos 8.550970/1

Prelude & Fugue in G sharp minor – In any compilation of Rosalyn Tureck's Greatest Hits, her interpretation of this prelude would surely be included. It's a perfect example of her unusually slow tempos and superb pacing, accenting, depth of vision, tenderness, joy, and urgency. In the initial survey, Jandó had the best version exhibiting speed and power; Martins and Levin (harpsichord) are also fast and do as well as Jando. Jarrett is also very good with a moderate tempo and fine momentum. But this is Tureck's prelude all the way.

The G sharp minor Fugue is another of Bach's supreme creations. For me, it's about the apocalypse and traces the process through its aftermath. Schiff and Schepkin deliver great versions of majestic beauty; Tureck adds that last ounce of apocalyptic vision. Levin does it just as well; his harpsichord reading is outstanding and an impressive achievement. Also, his sound is much better than Tureck's. Jarrett is fast and moves forward admirably with infectious pacing; this is a fine version of its type. Martins has the basic flavor of the music but is surface bound at the start and too emotional toward the conclusion.

Prelude & Fugue in A major – Listening to this joyous and understated prelude was very revealing for me. Previously, Jandó and Tureck were my standards. I thought that the piece might be a perfect match for Jarrett, and indeed, it sounds as if Bach wrote it for Jarrett – very playful, seamless, good forward momentum, and depth not a major concern. Then I listened to Levin's clavichord performance, and it is as good as Jarrett's. This is just the right music for the clavichord, and Levin and his keyboard highlight the subtlety and poignancy of the prelude. As it happens, Martins gives an excellent account which is simply overshadowed by his two fellow performers.

My favorite part of the Fugue in A major is the beginning where three different voices enter in ascending order with "sighing" notes for company. Tureck is superb in the opening with a staccato approach which is deliciously playful; at the same time, she highlights all the poignancy of the music. Levin, although he takes a different approach, is just as rewarding. He is fast and very urgent; it's a thrilling interpretation. Martins and Jarrett are quick and hold up well to most other versions.

Prelude & Fugue in A minor – The Prelude is a two-part invention which is highly chromatic and elicits from me the feeling that the laws of nature are being turned upside-down. Schiff provides a great slow version; Gulda is the best among fast paced performances. Jarrett is moderately paced and outstanding; the spirit of his reading exactly corresponds to my conception. Martins is very good, but toward the beginning he treats the music as if it's just a regular day in the life. Levin is not competitive as he puts a happy faced element into his interpretation; I think it starts to sound rather silly after repeated listenings. Initially, I thought that Levin's use of the fortepiano would heighten the sense of urgency, but it didn't happen.

The Fugue in A minor is in three voices and has a virtuoso quality. I'm not particularly taken with the music or the any of the versions originally reviewed. Jarrett is an exception. He dumps his usually seamless ways and delivers a taut and sharp performance which almost makes me love this fugue. Martins and Levin are fine and hold up well to most other versions.

Prelude & Fugue in B Flat Major – If you're hungry for some gorgeous and absolutely uplifting/joyous music, you need look no further. I found a few versions outstanding in my original survey, and Jarrett and Levin join that group. Jarrett's pacing is perfect, and his seamless approach is irresistible. Levin, on harpsichord, is very fast and angular. His is the most exciting interpretation I know, and he doesn't scrimp on the joy either. Martins is something else – when he's not behaving manic, he gives a great performance with an ultra slow tempo. But, and I do emphasize but, he has times when he's banging away and distorting the music big-time. He sounds so ridiculous that I start laughing. Overall, Martin's version is a worthy one, but once again, he finds a way to overcome his basic strengths and screw up what would have been a superb interpretation.

The Fugue continues the good feelings with another lovely piece. Again, Jarrett and Levin are fully the equal of other inspired versions such as Tureck and Schepkin. Levin is less angular than in the Prelude, and it pays handsomely. Jarrett is totally in his element with this fugue. Martins finds another way to insure he doesn't have one of the best interpretations; this time it's his use of staccato at the wrong times which disrupts the flow of the music and the degree of musicality.

Prelude & Fugue in B flat minor – The Prelude is one of elegance and grave beauty. Nikolayeva and Hewitt have been my preferred versions, but Martins is at least their equal. Using a slow tempo and doing nothing to sabotage his performance, he digs deeply into the work with an exquisite beauty and serenity. Both Jarrett and Levin (on organ) do well, although they tend to be surface-bound.

The B flat minor Fugue is monumental music which I think of as one of Bach's greatest pieces of music where he elicits from me the sense that the world's falling apart in terms of what we know it to be. In Part 6 I wrote, "None of the versions delivers everything wanted, but Fischer, Nikolayeva, and Jandó get closer than the others". Robert Levin does deliver everything; it's as if the bowels of Hell are exploding. Levin is fast, constantly urgent, very loud, and entirely apocalyptic. Where's the tenderness, poetry, and beauty? These and more are in his interpretation, and you don't have to look for them; they just mix splendidly with the doom. This is a revelatory version, and the organ is a perfect match for Levin's conception.

I've got to give this man extra points and revise the Satz Rating Model. Jarrett, although excellent with fine storm and poetry, can't compete with Levin. Martins has trouble with the turbulence of the music, although he is superb in the gentler passages. Do listen to Levin; it will make your day.

Prelude & Fugue in B Major – This Prelude is deceptive in its degree of power, speed, and poetry, but just turn up the volume and wonderful things happen. Tureck is revelatory in this music. Levin and Jarrett are not, but both deliver exciting performances; Levin uses his single-manual harpsichord. Martins is not so fortunate; he ridiculously extends bass notes and actually slows down at the end. One of the joys of the Prelude is its totally abrupt ending; that's when I say "wow". There's no wow to Martins at all.

The B Major Fugue has a high quotient of nobility and stature, and Tureck gives a slow performance which is a model to emulate. Martins gives it a try, but he can't approach Tureck's nobility. Levin is good, but his strong angularity is a little off course for this music which fits Jarrett's preferences very well.

Prelude & Fugue in B minor – Syncopation and suspension are the technical highlights of the Prelude; the emotional highlights center around a delicious mix of lyricism/tenderness contrasted with danger and tension. Tureck has been my standard, and Martins matches her with an even slower performance which really catches all the poetry in the music. Jarrett (smooth) and Levin (angular) do well but nothing special.

Book II concludes with the Fugue in B minor which has a combination of dark and light themes. Nikolayeva is my favorite version and remains so. Jarrett and Levin, as in the Prelude, perform well but not distinctively. Martins is not acceptable; he exhibits many mannerisms and sounds to me very muddled.

Summary

Levin's set on Hänssler is a fine achievement, and I consider it an essential purchase. I don't deny that some of my enthusiasm is based on the variety of instrumentation. That along with a high level of variety of interpretation by Levin makes the performances surprising and fresh. Levin's B flat minor Fugue alone is worth the price of the set.

Jarrett's version on ECM is very good and well worth considering. He's a known quantity by now and his WTC II continues his preferred style. This set should be avoided by those who want angular and relatively deep interpretations.

Martins is not recommended. Although he improved substantially after the first few preludes and fugues, he still has no particular niche among the competition. His strength is taking it slow and deeply; however, he doesn't do that very well much of the time. I feel that he sabotages those potentially great performances with a varied number of negative decisions. If you want slow and deep, look no further than Tureck; her set is much better than the Martin offering.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Don Satz.

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