Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

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]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

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….? Well … 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 Gould.

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 silences…." 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." She continues … "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 earlier.

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.

Gary Higginson

See also review by David Wright

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: