Bach's The Well-Tempered ClavierBach's The Well-Tempered Clavier

The Gramophone Choice

Edwin Fischer pf

Naxos Historical mono (107’ & 130' · ADD) Recorded 1933-36

8 110651/2: Book 1. Buy from Amazon

8 110653/4: Book 2. Buy from Amazon

Edwin Fischer’s recording of the ‘48’ was the first by a pianist of the set, and probably remains the finest of all. Fischer might have agreed with András Schiff that Bach is the ‘most romantic of all composers’, for his superfine musicianship seems to live and breathe in another world. His sonority is as ravishing as it’s apt, never beautiful for its own sake, and graced with a pedal technique so subtle that it results in a light and shade, a subdued sparkle or pointed sense of repartee that eludes lesser artists. No matter what complexity Bach throws at him, Fischer resolves it with a disarming poise and limpidity. All this is a far cry from, say, Glenn Gould’s egotism in the ‘48’. Fischer showed a deep humility before great art, making the singling out of one or another of his performances an impertinence.

In Book 2, you could hardly imagine a more seraphic utterance in No 3, later contrasted with the most skittish allegro reply. He possessed a touch with ‘the strength and softness of a lion’s velvet paw’, and there are few recordings from which today’s generation of pianists could learn so much; could absorb his way of transforming a supposedly learned tome into a fountain of limit­less magic and resource. Here he is, then, at his most sublimely poised and unruffled, at bargain price in beautifully restored sound.


Additional Recommendations

Angela Hewitt pf

Hyperion CDA67741/4 (4h 31’ · DDD) Recorded live 2008. Buy from Amazon

Listening to Angela Hewitt’s latest thoughts on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier alongside her late-1990s Hyperion cycle (reviewed below), it appears that her interpretations haven’t changed so much as evolved, intensified and, most important, internalised. This perception is enhanced by a closer sonic image, plus the leaner, more timbrally diverse qualities of Hewitt’s Fazioli concert grand that contrast with her earlier recording’s mellower, more uniform Steinway. Yet one readily credits Hewitt’s pianistic prowess for more acutely differentiated legato and detached articulation this time around, together with a wider range of melodic inflection. This adds considerable textural dimension to fugues whose close counterpoint is extremely difficult to voice and clarify. Hewitt’s uncommonly brisk and elegantly poised G sharp minor Book 2 Fugue has acquired conversational light and shade. Rubatos hinted at earlier re-emerge in fuller, more purposeful bloom: compare both readings of the E flat major Book 1 Prelude and the E major Book 2 Fugue, for example. Perhaps one could pigeonhole Hewitt I as characterised by dance, while Hewitt II mainly celebrates song. While both versions hold equal validity and stature, Hewitt’s remake ultimately digs deeper, with more personalised poetry. 


Angela Hewitt pf

Hyperion CDS44291/4 (4h 24’ · DDD · aas) Recorded 1997-99. Buy from Amazon

Admirers of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt’s lightly articulated and elegantly phrased Bach-playing won’t be disappointed by this recording. These qualities characterise the playing of each and every one of these profoundly didactic yet sublimely poetic pieces. Her restrained use of the sustaining pedal, her consequently clearly spoken articulation, and the resultant lucidity of musical thought, bring to mind the recorded performances of Edwin Fischer. Hewitt certainly sounds more comfortable in a studio than Fischer ever did, and her technique is more consistently disciplined than his was in these circumstances. Her reflective view of the more inward-looking fugues, such as the lyrical one in E flat minor, is most attractive. Taut, but with a supple­ness that’s entirely devoid of stiffness, this is indeed cogent and gracefully beautiful playing of a high order. You may sense, from time to time, an overtly intense element of subjective thought in her understanding of the music, a quality which seems to be endorsed by occasional references in her lively, illuminating and detailed introduction to Bach’s ‘sense of inner peace’, and so on. However, these are performances of Book 1 that you’ll want to hear many times over. The recording and instrument sound well, too.

Book 2 is again a delight to both ear and mind. Everything is in the best taste and free of exhibitionism. There are subtle tonal nuances, natural rises and falls of dynamics, well-defined differentiation of contrapuntal lines and appreciation of the expressive implications of Bach’s chromaticisms. Throughout her playing of these preludes and fugues – several longer, more mature and more demanding than those of Book 1 – there’s a sense of unhurried poise, with flowing rhythm. The air of tranquillity is underlined by her frequent adoption of very quiet openings, many of which then take on a warmer tone towards the end – even the E major Fugue, which Landowska labelled ‘combative’, is handled quietly, yet she’s able to sound contemplative (as in the E major Fugue) without lapsing into Tureckian reverentiality.

Just occasionally Bach’s more intense movements tempt her into emotional rubatos which, though musically affecting, take Bach out of his century, and not everyone will care for the big allargandos she makes at the ends of some of the earlier movements. Otherwise these are musicianly and imaginative performances.


The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book 1 

Maurizio Pollini pf

DG 477 8078GH2 (110’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon

Maurizio Pollini performed Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 back in 1985 and his playing was straightforward, somewhat austere, well judged in terms of tempi, and ornamentally conservative. Apparently the pianist examined the music anew before finally committing his interpretations to disc nearly a quarter of a century later. Although earlier impressions remain intact, there’s greater fluidity and warmth now. Pollini will have none of the agogic stresses, dynamic hairpins and tiny rubatos sprinkled throughout Angela Hewitt’s 2008 remakes (see above) and he avoids tempo modification as much as possible without managing to sound the least bit metronomic.

How does he do this? Close listening reveals minute changes in tone colour, subtle and strategic deployment of the piano’s una corda pedal, plus long phrases and fugal textures that have beginnings, middles and ends but no dead spots. A good example of this is the A minor Fugue, where the often entangled polyphony emerges with uncommon differentiation and character. Also notice introspective Preludes such as the E flat minor and B flat minor, where the accompanying chords’ moving parts fully present themselves without artificial highlighting. A few aggressively dispatched Preludes yield slightly blurry results (the G minor) and at least one tiny wrong note (in the C minor) that slipped past Pollini’s perfectionist radar. 

Some listeners may be turned off by the distant and slightly over-resonant engineering while others may more readily embrace its concert-hall realism, plus the fact that Pollini’s habitual vocal grunts and groans recede more into the background. 


The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book 2

Masaaki Suzuki hpd

BIS BIS-CD1513/4 (160’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon

More than a decade has lapsed between instalments of Masaaki Suzuki’s Well-Tempered Clavier. However, Book 2 was worth the wait. It lives up to Book 1’s high artistic and sonic standards, and possibly surpasses them.

Suzuki’s intelligent virtuosity operates on several levels. A vocal sensibility consistently determines how phrases begin, end and follow one another to their ultimate destinations. No matter what the basic tempo may be, breath pauses and agogic adjustments naturally mesh into the flow of Bach’s lines, rather than work against them. Textural variety also manifests itself through Masaaki’s subtle fingerwork. One also senses that Suzuki seriously pondered when and how to arpeggiate chords for maximum expressive and structural purpose, as the C sharp major, F minor and F sharp minor Preludes revealingly display. Yet the D major and B minor Fugues prove that Suzuki can deliver straightforward, even brash vitality when he choses.

As before, Suzuki plays an attractive and vibrantly recorded Willem Kroesbergen harpsichord modelled on a period Ruckers instrument, and Yo Tomita provides fascinating, informative booklet-notes. In all, Suzuki’s heartfelt synthesis of scholarship and musicality will provide repeated listening pleasure in one of the finest harpsichord recordings of Book 2 available.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014