Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of twenty-four
preludes and fugues, in each major and minor key. Widely considered
to be the summit of keyboard music, it is an encyclopaedia of forms
and styles, and, especially, of contrapuntal composition. Rosalyn Tureck,
once called the High Priestess of Bach, has certainly marked the twentieth
century with her many recordings of Bach’s keyboard music on piano.
This recording, made for the BBC in 1975 and 1976, is a welcome addition
to her discography.
Rosalyn Tureck’s landmark 1953 recording of the Well-Tempered
Clavier remains one of the milestones in the discography of Bach recordings,
but this set, recorded more than twenty years later, shows the pianist
at the summit of her form. Benefiting from an additional two decades
of experience with this music, she gives it insights of which few pianists
would be capable.
There is a great deal of fluidity in the preludes,
and a strong sense of rhythm in many of the fugues, such as the second
fugue in C minor. Some pianists tend to be better with the former, and
others the latter. In this recording, Tureck seems to give a much stronger
place to the fugues, turning them into carefully crafted works of art.
One is in the presence of greatness here. Listen to the haunting 12th
fugue in F minor, how Tureck turns this into a profound statement of
grief and pathos. Much slower than her 1953 recording (a full minute
longer - 5:49 compared with 4:48), Rosalyn Tureck here plays a mature
reading of this fugue, full of the richness of experience.
In general, the tempi here are more rapid. This set
clocks in at some twenty minutes shorter than the 1953 set. Yet some
of the key fugues are played much more slowly. The great four-part B
minor fugue, the final one in this set, is here played in 8:24, more
than a minute longer than her early recording, as is its prelude. This
closing pair has all the force and depth, in this recording, of the
Art of Fugue or other major works. Tureck seems to play this pair as
if they are the defining sections of book I; indeed they sound as such.
She plays this final fugue with such heart-rending beauty that the silence
that follows after the disc is finished still sounds like Bach.
A note on the recording. This "historic"
recording has been cleaned up and remastered, but is not perfect. The
piano has a clangy sound in the loudest passages, and sounds as if it
was miked too closely. Fortunately this does not detract unduly from
This is one of the finest piano recordings of the first
book of the Well-Tempered Clavier available. What a pleasure to discover
this, which shows Rosalyn Tureck at her finest. I eagerly await book
II, which will be released in the spring of 2003.