by Charles T. Downey | Saturday, November 17, 2012
If one is not careful, the experience of reviewing a new recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Vol. 1 / Vol. 2 ) is like going down an endless rabbit hole of countless interpretations. In spite of the outrageous number of recordings already available, pianists and harpsichordists continue to record Bach's summa of keyboard and contrapuntal technique: to name just a few in recent years, Christine Schornsheim (harpsichord), Richard Egarr (harpsichord), Till Fellner (piano), Angela Hewitt (piano), Maurizio Pollini, and now András Schiff. Sadly, because of Hurricane Sandy , Washington may never hear Schiff's interpretation of this monumental work live. Although WPAS rescheduled Schiff's recital, canceled by the storm last month, for next April , he will play the French suites instead of WTC. For now we will have to content ourselves with Schiff's new recording of the work for ECM, and although it may not have displaced my favorite recording, it has provided much enjoyable listening.
Schiff made his second recording of the WTC last August, nearly thirty years after his first one (Decca). As he stated in an interview on the project , recording Bach on the piano may be the elephant in the room -- pointing to the piano, he acknowledges that "it is an elephant, but a very useful elephant." No complaints here about playing Bach on the modern piano, although even without using the sustaining pedal almost all of the time, Schiff introduces some anachronistic elements, albeit musically satisfying ones. It is overall a carefully thought out and polished recording, musically surpassing the somewhat mannered recording that Schiff himself made in the 1980s.
The act of comparing this recording in exhaustive detail with my other favorite recordings would be impossible, but let a single fugue -- the last one of the first book, in B minor (BWV 689) -- suffice as a way to show how varied the performances of a broad range of musicians can be. Where the Schiff 1985 (timing, 7:25) version was dour, wan, a little lost, wandering, Schiff 2012 (6:50) has more assertive impetus in the pacing, slow enough to make the voices carefully distinguished, but with more rubato, overall a much more exciting sound. Among other recordings on piano, Till Fellner (6:10) is compact, smooth, all legato, but also a little cool and detached, actually not unlike Edwin Fischer (6:14), who takes a gliding pace, too, but is heavier on the sustaining pedal. Closer to Schiff's more glacial 1985 interpretation is the generally odd, but also towering Sviatoslav Richter (7:30), very legato, although the tempo does not sound as slow as the timing ends up being; and Maurizio Pollini (7:14), somewhat predictably cerebral, without much expression, very smooth and legato, and the use of little rubato resulting in crystal clarity.
Schiff's 2012 tempo seems closest to Angela Hewitt (6:48), who is -- also predictably -- the most fussy about the articulation. It is true that, in the Anna Magdalena manuscript in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, some of the subject's eighth notes are slurred carefully in groups of two. Hewitt makes sure that articulation is maintained in the subject through all its permutations, but she is also among the most expressive in using dynamics to shape the piece into peaks and valleys. Some of the shorter timings are actually in recordings made on the harpsichord, like Masaaki Suzuki (5:51), who hits a nice balance between too slow and too fast, but he plays on a harpsichord that does not make my favorite kind of harpsichord sound, a little clangy. Christine Schornsheim (6:15) is just a hair slower, while Richard Egarr (7:08) takes a leisurely pace almost as slow as Schiff 1985, with an interpretation that is professorial, carefully unraveling all of the crossing lines. Bach did not always give tempo markings, of course, but the word Largo is quite clearly written in the Anna Magdalena manuscript at the start of this fugue. Largo can mean a lot of things, of course, but it is hard to say anything about Glenn Gould's still indispensable recording, from the 1960s, other than that he totally ignores the tempo marking. Clocking in at 3:44, Gould's reading of this fugue is sprightly, even a little rushed, dancelike. Although he takes waywardly slow tempos in other places, Gould's recording is among the most compact (Vol. 1 : 106'; Vol 2 : 104') and remains my favorite because, even though it influenced my musical thinking when I was still quite young, it continues to surprise me.