Donald Satz wrote (August 2000):
Prelude & Fugue in B Flat Major – The Prelude is a very long and happy piece which sways gracefully throughout. It does need some energy in performance for the music has a playful and youthful atmosphere, although it can be performed in a more graceful/stately manner. Nikolayeva, although competent, is too soft-focused, dour, and addicted to short slow-downs which damage the music's flow. Fischer plays better but it seems that all the sound problems in the set descend on this prelude and greatly impact my enjoyment. Gould, Schiff, Roberts, Jandó, and Hewitt are very good versions; they are playful, energetic, and possess excellent flow. Although it's a seven-minute piece, Gould is finished in well under three minutes because he's very fast and refuses to repeat. He's definitely not the man for a whole night of romance. But, he is very musical and his fast speed is infectious.
Aldwell, Gulda, Tureck, and Schepkin are exceptional. Aldwell is graceful and stately in a dream-like atmosphere. Schepkin's version is lovely and incisive. Gulda has a great flow to the music and is emotionally strong. Tureck has the best build-ups to the climaxes in addition to perfect accenting.
The Fugue in B Flat Major is "feel good" music in the form of a minuet. Timings are very well distributed. The slower versions (Roberts, Nikolayeva, and Tureck) are in the 3 minute range. The fast versions (Gould, Gulda, and Schiff) are about 2 minutes in length. The others are in the 2'30' range. Given that the music is naturally stately and expresses happiness and even a satisfaction with the world, the faster versions are at a disadvantage. Gould and Gulda display limited expressiveness; Gulda is particularly mechanical. However, Schiff manages ample expressiveness in a fine reading. Among the slower versions, Nikolayeva delivers a soft-grained performance which is lovely but a little melancholy. In the moderate paced category, Hewitt, Aldwell, and Fischer give fine performances; Aldwell would have been excellent except for an overly romanticized account. The exceptional versions are Jandó, Schepkin, Roberts, and Tureck. Jandó has infectious pacing, a superb urgency, and a delectable bass line. Schepkin's is the most beautiful version. Roberts gives a "brilliant" and slow reading with fantastic three-voice separation. Tureck conveys to me a perfect peace in the universe, a satisfaction that only maturity can realize.
Prelude & Fugue in B flat minor – Aldwell describes this prelude very well – "A prelude of grave beauty, the texture that of a trio sonata all three lines of which are of equal elegance and intricacy, long and flowing". All the versions treated the music's beauty and long lines well enough; four stand out – Jandó, Aldwell, Hewitt, and Nikolayeva. Jandó has excellent pacing and a fine sense of urgency without the lose of poetry. Aldwell employs a very attractive slow pace in a lovely reading. Hewitt and Nikolayeva are superb. Hewitt presses all the right buttons with sensational accenting and part-playing; her version really tells the listener how much variety there is in the music. Nikolayeva delivers a "sad" reading which works wonderfully for the prelude and avoids any sense of stagnation; this version possesses the greatest emotional impact.
The Fugue in B flat minor is one of Bach's greatest WTC achievements. Aldwell considers it "monumental", and I second that view. The stretti and inversions are masterful, and the music expresses a wide range of themes and emotions. Tension is crucial to the music as is a lyricism and beauty of the highest order. All the versions are rewarding. Roberts is on the superficial side but highly enjoyable while driving. Gulda is a little low on expressiveness, but his 7 minute reading holds up well. Gould takes just a little over 3 minutes and also holds up well, and is also low on expressiveness. The best versions are Fischer, Nikolayeva, and Jando. Fischer provides all the tension I could want and his lyricism in the softer passages is superb; unfortunately, the last minute entails quite a lot of key banging in poor sound. Nikolayeva's not at the top level for tension, but her version is the most beautiful and tender. Jando's display of urgency in the music is exceptional, although his poetry is not outstanding. None of the versions delivers everything wanted, but Fischer, Nikolayeva, and Jandó get closer than the others.
Prelude & Fugue in B Major – With the Prelude, Bach brings us back to joy and happiness with a quick pace generated by a fairly simple bass line and "dancing" right hand. Gulda plays it fast, and although I find it enjoyable, there isn't sufficient breadth or joy. Tureck provides everything Gulda lacks; although just a little slower than Gulda, Tureck stretches out the music to reveal its beauty and boundless joy. She particularly does an outstanding job in highlighting the stunning staccato approach; her reading is very special. Hewitt, at Gulda's level, provides a good reading; however, her performance is based on momentum and she is too soft-focused atimes to carry it off. Schepkin has plenty of momentum and a speed even faster than Gulda; Schepkin suffers from events passing by with little notice. Jando is as fast as Gulda, but Jando's performance is very exciting with a delectable pace; he's not at Tureck's level but just a step behind. Schiff delivers a relatively "demure" performance which doesn't begin to reach the heart of the music. Fischer is no better as he has times when he sounds like a young child banging on the keys; the bass line is given poor sound. Aldwell's reading is quite slow and starts off poetically; however, he then exhibits annoying mannerisms and an inappropriate sense of humor. Roberts is as slow as Aldwell and gives a fine reading although he has the tendency to disrupt the music's flow through short pauses and slight shifts of tempo. Although faster than Roberts, Nikolayeva also displays some bad traits; she does poorly with the staccato, and her performance is disjointed, showing no seamlessness. Gould is fast and gives a good performance with sufficient joy and excitement. In conclusion, I don't see significant reason to listen to any versions other than Jandó and Tureck; Tureck's reading is revelatory and Jandó provides the speed and excitement.
The Fugue in B Major is a four-voice work of nobility and stature; although it starts out with each of the four voices entering in ascending order with a great sense of serenity and repose, there is much stately drama and turbulence later on. Timings range from 2 to about 4 minutes. Gould, at 2 minutes, has no time or inclination for serenity or nobility. The problem is that I was left feeling that he didn't replace those traits with any of his own making other than creating a caricature. I suppose that Roberts is easier to enjoy than Gould, but he still gives a superficial performance. Schiff, Fischer, Nikolayeva, Schepkin, Aldwell, and Gulda give fine performances. Fischer's sound has an upheaval toward the conclusion, and Gulda starts off powerful, diluting the contrast later to come. Jandó, Tureck, and Hewitt are excellent. Jando's reading is rather quick, displays great momentum, and uses irresistible pacing. Tureck, quite slow, provides a model for the piece. Hewitt, using a moderate pace, delivers a wide range of themes in a beautiful setting.
Prelude & Fugue in B minor – The Prelude, although having significant tenderness and lyricism, revolves around agitation, foreboding, fear, and their eventual realization. Bach excellently uses syncopation and suspension to elicit these themes from me. Of the four fast versions, three are uneventful (Gould, Schiff, Hewitt). Fischer is slower, but his playing is a little willful in bad sound. I found the other versions equally rewarding including a fast version from Schepkin. He shows the other three quick pianists how to provide ample expression at a fast pace.
Tureck states that the Fugue in B minor is of good humor and charm, but her version has only moderate charm and I detected no humor. I didn't hear humor in any of the versions, but I did hear a lot of joy from Hewitt and Schepkin, and great tenderness from Nikolayeva. From reading all the liner notes, I never would have thought that any "dark" themes are in the music, but they are there and strong. There's a menacing and perverse element that runs throughout the piece, and most of the versions do not try to hide it. Only Fischer and Gould are below standards; both are rather unmusical at times, and Gould's fast speed kills off most of the themes. Nikolayeva's performance is my favorite for its wonderfully tender interpretation. The remaining versions are fine with Tureck, Gulda, and Jando emphasizing the darkness of the music.
Using the highly touted Satz rating model, here's the order of preference:
1. By a very wide margin, Tureck's set is the best. In half of the preludes and fugues, nobody was better than Tureck. I consider that a very impressive statistic considering there are 11 versions. Tureck is slow paced, displays excellent tension and outstanding angularity, digs deeply into Bach's music, is very poetic, tender, and lyrical, and so on and so on. Her's is a magnificent achievement. There are two considerations that stop me from recommending this set to "everyone". First, the sound is early 1950's and not great for that time period either; it's better than Fischer's, but that's not saying much. Second, you can't get speed and its excitement from Tureck. So, if you love the speed of the WTC and must have excellent sound, Tureck should be avoided. Everyone else should consider Tureck a must-buy at any cost.
2(Tie). I consider Aldwell and Gulda antidotes to one another. Aldwell is smooth, seamless, slow, and rich with an acoustic to match. Gulda is powerful, precise, generally fast, and detailed with an acoustic to match. Within their respective interpretive boundaries, both pianists are excellent and deliver the goods. Both sets are sort of specialist in nature; your general preferences in this repertoire will tell you which direction to go toward. For me, they are both must-buys.
4. I'm surprised to relate that Nikolayeva occupies the fourth position. My memories of her set were not very good, but this recent examination shows I was wrong. Nikolayeva tends to be slow-paced, very thoughtful/tender/lyrical, and she has fine recorded sound. Many of the pianists dropped-off in quality in the second half of Book II; Nikolayeva just got better as she went along. Hers is not a must-buy set, I do strongly recommend it.
5(Tie). Here's where we find Hewitt and Schepkin. Hewitt's is a fine mainstream version. She's not particularly fast or slow, highly emotional or devoid of feeling, etc. With a good recorded sound, I can safely recommend Hewitt's set as an all-around version for those who only intend to have one recording of the WTC. Schepkin is not as mainstream in his conceptions as Hewitt; his extremes of tempo and characterization are stronger as well. Still, Schepkin is also a good choice for the one-version buyer who would get a fine cross-section of Bach's musical variety.
7. Jandó does very well, and he doesn't fall off in the second half of the set. He emphasizes the urgency of Bach's music deliciously, and I always feel that he's trying his best to get to the heart of the music. This would be a fine purchase at premium price; at the Naxos price, it's a fantastic purchase for anyone on a tight budget.
8. Gould this low? Yes, I rechecked the figures and all is well. Gould's problem is that he tends to self-destruct in the second half of the set with extremely fast tempos that go nowhere. What happened to his ample poetry, tenderness, and ability to dive right into the center of the music? I have no idea; I just report the results. But this set is not a waste of money by a long shot. Gould delivers some revelatory performances that can't be found elsewhere.
9. Schiff's set is actually quite good. With little exception, he eschews the mannerisms he displayed in the Goldberg Variations and provides good up-standing performances. But he can't deliver excellent interpretations on a consistent basis.
10. I feel badly placing Fischer so low, but the competition is tough and Fischer has to deal with some bad sound. He also is rather unmusical at times, going into his own idiom. The reason I feel badly is that Fischer is a master at providing the tension in Bach's music. When the sound and Fischer are behaving well, nobody gives better performances; it just doesn't happen often enough.
11. Drum roll Please! Here is Roberts, all alone in the cellar. Poor sound? No, Roberts has the best sound among the versions. Unmusical interpretations? No, he's always musical and enjoyable. Crazy tempos? No, his tempos are within reasonable boundaries. Robert's condition is that he usually skims the surface of the music, and his is the only version in that category. But there is an up-side. I'm finding his set great for listening in my car or while doing other things. He sounds excellent and highly enjoyable as long as you are not digging deeply into the music. Roberts didn't do that either. This could be Motor Trend's Classical Recording of the Year.
Next I'm going to do something with Chopin's Piano Concertos (like listen to them). That's a big jump from Bach, but it's still fantastic keyboard music. And don't believe that stuff you hear about Chopin's poor orchestrations. I wouldn't love these two works if the orchestrations did not "contribute" greatly to my listening enjoyment. I'll see you Romantics later.