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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Johann Sebastian BACH
The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book Two
Robert Levin (organ/harpsichord/clavichord/fortepiano)

HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 92.117. (2 CDs) (DDD) ( 135.59)
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Over two hours of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in one go is some task for anyone to have to listen to. Perhaps this is why Robert Levin alternates between four instruments.

He is a very fine player and among his teachers was that exemplary master of modern music, Stefan Wolpe. Levin is an international figure of deserved repute. No less a figure that Rudolf Serkin invited him to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia He is an individual usually improvising his own cadenzas in concertos saying that that would have been what the composer would have done. His performances of Mozart and Beethoven caused a stir and, sadly, he has, or had become so involved with the irritating school of authenticity.

As I have said in another review, ornaments were important to the baroque composer. Quite frankly it was laziness to simply write a trill or a mordant sign instead of writing out the notes. Even today students taking theory examinations with the Associated Board and Trinity and other such places have to deal with these blessed ornaments. For example, grade 7 with the Associated Board sets an exercise giving a piece of music by an early composer minus all the ornament directions and asking the student to write it out fully putting in all the notes of unspecified ornaments as the composer would have done. How utterly ridiculous! And when the student has done this who is to say he is wrong? How can you mark an exercise which is mere speculation?

One advanced student of mine was criticised for the ornaments she used in playing a piece by Handel. The examiner wrote on the mark sheet, "Handel would not have played it like this!" How did she know? Is she a Rosemary Brown figure who is in touch with the spirit of the dead composer who dictates his wishes to her from beyond the grave? Students are supposed to know all about ornaments and yet the same examinations do not cover more modern styles of composition and musical grammar. As far as I know students are not given exercises in serialism and yet they are expected to know and understand figured bass - another downright lazy device of baroque composers. Everything in music academically is largely in favour of early music and tonal predictabilities of each age. Nothing about modern techniques. This is prejudice!

I saw an allegedly well-respected musician write in a musical journal recently, "No music of any worth has been written since 1934, the year that both Elgar and Holst died." Another wrote, "Anything that is not written in a key is not music at all." The prejudice against music of the last 60 years is a disgrace.

And it is the opinion of some that this hateful prejudice has caused the desire for baroque authenticity and the rise of champions of this fashion (or do I mean fad?). Early music has become so slow so stilted and so damn correct that the spirit is lost as well as the excitement. Early music played in a dull way will kill it. Music must always be played with life and vitality. Music is not prodding a corpse.

Robert Levin plays with energy and verve. The items played on the organ sound best with a taste of majesty and, of course, far more colour. But even he cannot resist slowing down at the end of movements. Are we to play Bach or the player? These early composers left few directions as to how the pieces should be played and, therefore, did not authorise rallentandos at the end of movements.

But are these preludes and fugues just exercises as were the Scarlatti sonatas? Are they merely academic? Some years ago I conducted some research and found that the majority said that the Bach preludes and fugues were better to play than to listen to. The ratio was 12 to 1. And is it true that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto eight hundred times? Is it true that all the 48 Preludes and Fugues of the Well-tempered Clavier, books one and two, are much of a muchness? It is how we see these pieces that governs to some extent how we review them and assess the performances. And opinion is divided as to the purpose of these pieces. Much as I admire Bach I cannot maintain interest in this enormous undertaking. For students and those having to play any of these pieces for any examination I can and do recommend these performances.


David Wright.




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