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J S BACH (1685-1750)
Twelve Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier
Book One Nos 4,9,10,11,12,13,14
Book Two Nos 27,30,31,39,48
Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother BWV 992
Toccata and Fugue in D major BWV 912
Wilhelm Kempff, piano
Recorded 1976
Deutsche Grammophon Eloquence 457 653-2 [75.02]

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I had little but the highest praise in a recent review of Kempffs Bach transcriptions (DG Eloquence 457 624-2). Here Im less convinced. Kempff never recorded the complete Well-Tempered Clavier. Hed recorded individual Preludes and Fugues in 1928 and 1931 but it wasnt until the mid 1970s that he taped this set of twelve and he chose seven from Book One and five from Book Two. Im not sure on what basis, apart from personal preference, he made his choice but it makes for a somewhat arbitrary and perplexing selection and I wish I could be more consistently enthusiastic about the performances.

These are in fact rather bewilderingly uneven in inflection, in interpretation and in execution. His mood ranges from romantic legato to aggressive attack via lumpiness and seeming indifference. He can be exceptionally emphatic (as in the C minor, No 4, Prelude) and abrupt (the ending of the E minor Fugue, No 10) with a sometimes almost cursory feeling to the phrasing (Prelude No 11). There is real untidiness in the trills of the Twelfth Prelude, in F minor and a splashy feeling generally. There is some fairly stolid playing in the succeeding Fugue which recovers only to end in some uneven trills. In total contradistinction I admired without reservation the pairing of the Eleventh Prelude and Fugue which seems to me one of the best performances on the disc, wise and true. Also the imaginative and compelling way he brings out and gives full judicious weight to the voicings in Prelude No 27. But listen to its Fugue where over aggressive highlighting overbalances the bass notes. I found Prelude No 39, in G major, with its fractured tempi, increasingly unconvincing but there is equally real drama to the final Prelude. Elsewhere he can play with genuine conviction. When he chooses it his legato phrasing is exceptionally beautiful but inflectionless phrasing can bedevil his performances and there can be little doubt that some of the Preludes and Fugues suit his temperament more decisively than others. At times his tempo decisions are acute, at others contentious.

Coupled with these problematic performances come the Capriccio and the Toccata and Fugue in D major. The Capriccio is a ten-minute lament of winsome depth and charm. Kempff interprets the remarkable Adagissimo indication of the third movement rather more briskly than one might expect but he is effortlessly engaging in the imitative Post horn movements. In the Toccata and Fugue he is altogether more enjoyable than in the main body of the disc with a consistency lacking elsewhere.

A rather unsatisfactory disc then. A selection of the Preludes and Fugues, erratically played, does not show the great pianist in the best light and Im not entirely sure who would want this peculiarly selected recital anyway.

Jonathan Woolf


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