J.S. BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2
Diana Boyle Piano
Recorded Forde Abbey, Dorset, October 1987 and March 1988
METIER MSVCD2002 [CD1
75.49; CD2 72.19]
In the end it all comes down to whether you like your Bach keyboard music
played on the harpsichord or piano. If you do not mind then I would suggest
that you have the 48 Preludes and Fugues in two versions, one for piano and
one for harpsichord. My choice for the harpsichord would probably be Davitt
Moroney on Harmonia Mundi (HMA 1901285.88) but for the piano
the problem with this version is that there are too many anomalies
and personal quirks which on regular listening or even after one listen may
prove to be rather annoying, I will explain.
If you have ever visited Ford Abbey you may recall the Great Hall with a
dais at one end. This is almost entirely unfurnished and being built in the
16th Century of stone with a flat roof has a cool look and a rather
uncompromising acoustic. The 'Consort of Musick' directed by Anthony Rooley
regularly record there and for madrigals it is, I think, highly successful
but I am not convinced of its suitability for the piano. The effect here
is often harsh and uncompromising; this particularly affects the dry
staccatissimos, which Miss Boyle is rather fond of, à la Glenn
The programme booklet by Diana Boyle attempts to explain itself as follows
"The quality of silence"
[at Forde Abbey] is "varied as each day
progressed. In the morning, the music might sound very different from the
way it did in late evening when the hall was dark and the piano was cocooned
in a halo of light from a single lamp. On a wet day the piano (a
Grotian-Steinweg) would speak quite differently from the way it spoke on
a dry day. And sometimes other creatures would sing in the carefully crafted
." I have to say that this seems to lead, not surprisingly,
to an inconsistently recorded acoustic but more importantly an inconsistent
performance approach, which might otherwise have attempted to compensate
for these changes.
I would like Miss Boyle to speak for herself again before I continue as to
her interpretation. "The piano
permits, in principle, any degree of
subtlety in bringing out different voices within contrapuntal textures."
"The present recording was made with the intention of
clarifying the musical texture, to try to release independent voices from
the harmonic mass." In the next paragraph she writes "Clarity has been sought
through the deployment of a wide range of non-legato articulations, the aim
of which has been to focus attention on each note as an individual even within
fast-moving passages." I hope that you get her flow.
I played a couple of the Preludes and Fugues to a group of A-level students
and asked them to comment. They said, quite rightly, that the fugal entries
were very clear as were the fugal answers; it certainly helped them to understand
what Bach was doing. But, like me they were puzzled by the extreme way in
which this was done. Quite often the subject is hit out in such a very harsh
manner that the surrounding counterpoint is lost. If the subject is in the
bass then the balance with the treble is lost, if in a middle part then the
bass is too gentle. A few observations would be as follows; surely Fugue
2 (C minor) is too staccato. In the E major Fugue (number 9) the bass statements
are too obtrusive and abrupt, also in Fugue 5 (D major). In Fugue 20 (A minor)
the effect of the double accents is so great that it becomes ugly. This is
the subject, which begins with the same opening as Handel's 'And with his
stripes', from 'Messiah' which is exactly contemporaneous.
Some of the Preludes cannot escape criticism either. No repeats are ever
done, and whilst this is consistent it is sometimes a relief as some are
taken incredibly slowly. The A flat prelude [number 17] is typical. Prelude
16 (G minor) is played in the French style, with double dotted semiquavers.
The theory is good but the effect is too stiff and uninteresting. The E minor
prelude (number 10) has somewhat awkward phrasing when a group of 13 semiquavers
are followed by an octave jump quaver, which is accented unnecessarily. The
quaver can, as an option, be phrased into the semiquavers or separated from
them but it should not obtrude so awkwardly.
Yet sometimes the preludes are idyllically beautiful. Particularly moving
were Prelude 4 (C# minor) very delicate, sombre, quiet and with some sensitive
rubato, Prelude 9 (E major), Prelude 11 (F major) with its beautiful phrasing,
sweet tone, and good dynamic contrasts and I also enjoyed the F# major Fugue
which was beautifully done. So we have the inconsistency that I mentioned
Ornamentation is another puzzle to me. There are some Preludes and Fugues,
which are ornamented in the conventional manner and others that are quite
naked of ornamentation in places where they were done before, i.e. final
cadences. I was following mostly the Orlando Morgan Edition (1926) published
by Edwin Ashdown. There were occasions when Miss Boyle likewise seemed to
have this version on the piano and other occasions when something else was
going on. Morgan lists various alternatives found in other, older editions,
which Miss Boyle sometimes adheres to and sometimes goes off at a tangent.
When will performers tell us, as a matter of course, which edition or editions
they are using? After all we know the sound engineer and all the other details.
There is a competitive market for Bach's Preludes and Fugues. Diana Boyle
has something which she feels that she wishes to say about them, but for
this reviewer, at least, the approach is too theatrical verging on the harsh
and sometimes eccentric. It would be difficult in these circumstances to
recommend this version above other ones by well known names, of which Glenn
Gould is just one.
See also review by David Wright