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Wolfgang Rübsam (Piano)

Bach Keyboard Recordings from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 1


J. S. Bach: French Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Italian Concerto; Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue

French Suites No. 1-2 BWV 812-813 [14:55, 13:50]
Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 [13:53]
Italian Concerto BWV 971 [12:37]

Wolfgang Rübsam (Piano)


Nov 1991

CD / TT: 55:24

Recorded at Clara Wieck Auditorium, Heidelberg, Germany.
Buy this album at:

Donald Satz wrote (July 12, 2001):
Summary for the Skeptical Collector: Take the plunge

Over the years, Naxos has been using the services of Wolfgang Rübsam for the majority of its solo keyboard Bach recordings. As I remember, the reviews have not been particularly kind to Rübsam. Dave Lampson recently referred to Rübsam's performances as "workmanlike", and that opinion seems to cover the feelings of most reviewers. However, Naxos discs are so inexpensive that I thought I'd pick up a few of Bach/Rübsam on piano. In addition to the disc cited above, I'll be reviewing three other Rübsam issues in future postings.

I'll first address the sound quality of the disc at hand. The sound is low on bass response and richness. Appropriate adjustments of the audio controls help alleviate the situation; use of an equalizer totally eliminates the problem without creating any negatives. Given the success of the adjustment routine, I don't have any complaints about the recorded sound.

The French Suite BWV 812 provides a fine example of Rübsam's style. I compared his version to the one from Gavrilov on his EMI set of the French Suites, and the differences are pronounced. Gavrilov places high priority on forward momentum except in the Sarabande where his very slow pacing adds to the depth of his lovely reading. Gavrilov does not allow the emphasis on momentum to detract from the tenderness and emotional themes. Still, he stays on the main road and always looks forward. In contrast, Rübsam is not concerned at all with a so-called main road; he alters dynamics, accenting, rhythm, and tempo based on what I assume to be a thorough analysis of the music. Rübsam sounds rather spontaneous and quite good. Being a 'momentum' man, I do prefer the Gavrilov performance but am impressed with Rübsam. His playing is not ordinary nor mainstream. It's distinctive and very enjoyable and enlightening. It could even be that Rübsam would have more lasting power than Gavrilov because of the greater variety.

For Rübsam's French Suite BWV 813, my comparison was the excellent Angela Hewitt version on her Hyperion set of the French Suites. Again, Rübsam is less seamless and more varied than most alternatives. I like Rübsam's C minor performance even more than his D minor; the Allemande is played ever so slow and frequently tugs at the heart. Actually, my only reservation concerning Rübsam's readings of the two Suites is that I would have liked significantly stronger projection in the second part of both Menuets. Other than that, these are very pleasureable interpretations.

The Italian Concerto (BWV 971) is a more demonstrative and stronger work than either of the French Suites. Rübsam didn't show any inclination for strong volume in his readings of the Suites; does he make the adjustments for the first and third movements of the Italian Concerto? No problem. Rübsam is sufficiently strong in the first movement while maintaining his regimen of horizontal expressiveness. It's in the third movement where Rübsam really lets his hair down and provides one exciting reading loaded with momentum; this is as good a performance as Hewitt's, Gould's, or any other pianist's. I do have a reservation about the second movement. Rübsam's right hand playing is wonderful, but he uses a slight and soft staccato throughout in the lower registers which I feel reduces the level of conversation in the movement. For a magical Andante, look no further than Hewitt on her DG Bach recital disc. Overall, this is another fine accomplishment for Rübsam.

The remaining work on the disc is the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903). This famous Bach composition requires even more strength than the Italian Concerto; it also gives the performer a host of opportunites for a wide range of interpretive flexiblilty. Rübsam meets all challenges with a strong reading of fine expressiveness; my only qualm is that I thought that would be a little more imaginative.

Don's Conclusions: This is a very fine set of performances from Wolfgang Rübsam. They are highly expressive and distinctive, particularly in the two French Suites. The readings are a little on the romantic side from time to time but not enough to reduce the rewards of the listening experience. Further, it's great to have one or more special performances on a recording, and Rübsam gives us two in the Allemande from the C minor French Suite and the third movement of the Italian Concerto. I think the disc would make a fine addition to anyone's library at premium price. Given the Naxos price, there's no reason to hesitate.


Feedback to the Review

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 12, 2001):
I agree with Don. Some further notes:

Rübsam started this series on Bayer Records from Germany. Those are produced by Rudolf Bayer. That series evaporated and Rübsam moved it to Naxos.

The French suites, Italian concerto, and Chromatic F&F were a two-disc set Bayer 100025-026, recorded 1986. Naxos simply reissued those two discs separately. Two others are also direct reissues from Bayer to Naxos: the Toccatas on piano (Bayer 100019, 1989) and the organ disc that has the Schubler chorales plus BWV 537, 538, 572, 545 (Bayer 100102, 1988).

Meanwhile in 1988 there was a very early Naxos disc where Rübsam played the E-flat P&F 552 and several other of the organ works: 565, 590, 532, 548. That was in the days when Naxos issues came in slim cases, and the now-familiar white cover design wasn't there yet. That issue is long gone, but Naxos reissued it in 1991 in the new-style case. Rübsam re-recorded 552 in 1993 since it's part of Clavierubung III.

Rübsam did a few of the organ discs for Naxos in 1989 produced by Günter Appenheimer. But since then he has produced all of them himself, and he licenses them to Naxos from his own company (RMC).

One other Bayer/Naxos crossover must be mentioned. Rübsam did the English suites on piano on the Bayer two-disc set 100007-8, recorded 1985. That was (I believe) the first Bach-on-piano set he ever did, and his interpretive style on piano hadn't quite jelled yet. Rübsam wisely redid them all for Naxos in 1995: much more interesting performances there. It's fun to have both, but mainly as a "before-and-after" snapshot: to hear Rübsam's imagination take shape (as it did a year later in the French suites, the first indication that this series might become something special). The Bayer set of the English suites is more straightforward and generic.

Rübsam's artistic manifesto about his Bach-on-piano is published in the program notes of the Partitas discs.

Jim Morrison wrote (July 12, 2001):
You've probably heard me say this before, but like Brad and Don, I give Rübsam's work a high recommendation. It's Bach unlike any I've ever heard. Very choppy. :-) Just, kidding Brad. Though I have heard others describe it that way. "Geodesic" is how Brad's described it to me before, a term I find appropriate. Not your forward momentum Bach, but definitely your highly detailed Bach.

Rübsam has an artist web page at the Naxos site. You may have to copy and paste the link to get it to work.(Check out the picture):übsam,%20wolfgang

you can hear the recording under review at:

Naxos now has a sign-up requirement for listening to their discs online. It's breif, name, email, age, gender, that's about it.

When I first heard Rubsum I didn't like him (though the first recording of his that I bought was also my first recording of anybody's Toccatas, and you know how I feel about the Toccatas. If only they could have been in the league of the first movement of the Sixth Partita. Then I would be a big fan of them. But I digress.)

Now I find his playing nearly hypnotic and full of nuance, a bit like Tureck, in the way they both cast a kind of quite spell over the room.

Love those allemandes!

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 12, 2001):
[To Jim Morrison] Yep, Rübsam "casting a quiet spell over the room" - exactly. He does it in concert, too.

I was living in northern Indiana through the 1980's and between 1985 and 1989 I heard him play several Bach concerts. (Local artist: he lives just east of Chicago.) I had got to know some of his earlier recordings around 1983-4 through my organ teacher, who had studied with him. Hearing those got me hooked on collecting any of his recordings I could find, and it was a great treat to hear him play live.

In the organ concerts he played everything from memory, which is somewhat rare for an organist; the only notes he had were a single sheet of the registrations he'd worked out for that particular organ. His playing grabs the attention from the first few notes, and holds it all the way through...but he does it with rhythm, articulation, and phrasing, not through being loud. He expects the listener to pay attention, and he rewards it...the listener's mind comes in quietly and respectfully to join Rübsam for the improvisatory experience through the music. There are unexpected things happening all the time, even if one already knows the notes. Let's discover this wonderful piece together, bring yourself to it....

During that time he also did some lectures at the annual Goshen College summer workshop for piano teachers, offering his views on how to interpret Bach on the piano. Piano teachers already have views about how to do that, so Rübsam was there to challenge them to think in new directions. At his evening concerts he put his words into practice (tough audience: a group of piano teachers!). Unless I'm remembering the year incorrectly (might be 1985 or 1987), the first of those was in summer 1986, just after he'd got back from recording the French suites/Italian concerto/Chromatic F&F in Germany in April (the set Don reviewed). That's what he played in the evening concert I heard. I'd never heard Bach played that way before, and it startled me, but it quickly captivated me. The concert hall seated several hundred, but instead of "projecting" the music to every seat he played very quietly. We had to listen closely to hear him, and that focused the experience. The music was never fast or flashy, even in the chromatic fantasy. He made every moment count, and we all waited with him through every silence. It was mesmerizing. And what flexibility! He had total control of the space. He projected an introverted side of Bach, fresh and attractive. Certainly not the only way to play Bach, but a very nice one.

It's like the old saying: to really get someone's attention, whisper.

A further startling thing was: I'd played that organ and that piano hundreds of times, and had heard many other people play them too, so I thought I knew what they could do...but Rübsam made them both sound like completely different instruments. His focus was that strong, his touch that different.

I kept waiting for the recordings to come out. Bayer finally released the French (1986) and English (1985) sets in 1988 and I got them immediately as imports. Yes, they sounded like my memory of that phenomenal concert. Bliss! I similarly grabbed the Toccatas as soon as they came out in '89 and the Schublers in '91. Then the Bayer series crumbled...but the good news was that Naxos picked it up, and their discs cost 1/3 as much.

Donald Satz wrote (July 12, 2001):
[To Jim Morrison] I agree with Jim about the Tureck similarlity; also, Rübsam has some fine qualities I tend to associate with Gulda (but not the momentum issue).

Donald Satz wrote (July 12, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] It doesn't make any difference to me when Rübsam recorded his performances, but the back of each of the Naxos discs I have indicate a recording date in the 1990's in Indiana.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 12, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] If Naxos claims that for the French suites discs, they're lying. A year ago I had Bayer 100025-26 and Naxos 8.550709-10 side by side, listened to both very carefully, and determined them to be exactly the same (except for the program notes being new and in English, and Naxos reporting the timing of each movement to be slightly longer...the silence at the end of each). So I sold the Naxos; I can get it again anywhere if I need it.

I spot-checked the Bayer set against the full-length samples at the Naxos web site again just now to be absolutely sure once again...and they're still identical. :)

And the Bayer set says they were recorded April 7-8-12-13-14 1986 in Tonstudio van Geest, Sandhausen; engineer Teije van Geest; editing Martin Sauer; producer Rudolf Bayer.

Donald Satz wrote (July 13, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes Brad, you are correct. Of the four Rübsam discs I have, three were in my office at work. Since each indicated a recording venue of Indiana, I assumed the French Suites disc was the same. But when I got home, I noticed the disc indicated a recording date of November 1991 at the Clara Wieck Auditorium in Heidelberg.


French Suites BWV 812-817: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | French – Brookshire | French – Cates | French – Dart | French - Payne | French - Rannou | Rübsam – Part 1 | French - Suzuki

Wolfgang Rübsam: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach Organ Works from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 1 | Bach Organ Works from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 2 | Bach Organ Works from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 3 | Bach Keyboard Recordings from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 1 | Bach Keyboard Recordings from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 2 | Bach Keyboard Recordings from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 3 | Bach Keyboard Recordings from Wolfgang Rübsam, Part 4

Instrumental Works: Recordings, Reviews & Discussions - Main Page | Order of Discussion
Recording Reviews of Instrumental Works: Main Page | Organ | Keyboard | Solo Instrumental | Chamber | Orchestral, MO, AOF
Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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