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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Book 1 BWV 846-869 [122:26]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Recorded July 21st-31st 1970 at the Schloss Klesheim, Salzburg, Austria
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 62315 2 [67:51 + 54:35]
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Any suspicion that Richter might be forbiddingly dry, or coldly monumental, would seem to be answered by his heartfelt yet quite unsentimental performance of the opening prelude. Its arpeggios are flowing and luminous, the bass-line sometimes emerging to speak as a deep ripple on a pond. The same gently luminous sound is used for the following fugue, making light of its learned strettos and what-have-you. In fact, as we go on we find that Richter always seeks unity between each pair of preludes and fugues, making the fugue grow out of the prelude and maintaining the same sort of sound, except in the few cases, such as the F sharp minor, where this is obviously impossible. There contrast is the order of the day.

After this gentle beginning the C minor is made tough and challenging while the C sharp major is fast and wonderfully fleet. This is the first of several cases where Richter brings off a long, complicated fugue (others are the G major and the A minor) at a tempo which most of us would despair of managing with the necessary technical stability. Yet this is delivered with such total clarity and Olympian calm. The result is wholly convincing, removing any doubts that lesser artists might arouse that these pieces are overworked and overlong. In the C sharp minor prelude, then, we can admire the gravity of his approach to the more spiritual pieces, as we can his patient building up of the vast long span of its fugue. Other fugues that benefit from this long-term architectural sense are, fairly obviously, those in D sharp minor and the concluding B minor, but also those in F sharp minor and G minor which, occupying only two pages of music each, might seem lesser statements but receive their full stature here.

At first hearing I queried a few tempi and spent some time listening to alternative versions of selected preludes and fugues by Edwin Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould. Originally I had intended to include these detailed comparisons in my review, but returning to Richter again I feel he is really above comparisons, by which I donít mean he has the best solution to each single one but that he finds a convincing solution in every case and also whether intentionally or not appears to build up the whole vast volume as a unified cycle.

Just to be brief, Fischer has a special place as the first artist who concluded a project to record the "48", but also on account of the sense of spiritual radiance which informs his best performances. The trouble is, he was very nervous in the studio and quite frankly, while much has been said about Cortotís wrong notes, I find Fischerís fumblings and wobbly tempi much more disturbing, maybe because Bach is not really the sort of composer where you can take these things in your stride. Where he is untroubled, as in the G sharp minor, he perhaps exudes a sense of humanity which Richter does not tap so easily, but these moments are rare overall.

Tureckís principal armoury was her ability to give a special individual ping to semiquavers remarkably similar to that of the harpsichord, and she used this to create rows and rows of abstract note-patterns that would sound terribly slow if they had been played legato. Her approach might be described as the sublimation of the four-square; she takes as her starting-point the most obtusely dogmatic tempo and phrasing possible (hear the A flat major fugue) and by sheer persistence makes it convincing in a way. But itís not a Bach where I can feel at home.

Gouldís might be described as the sublimation of the unpredictable. He certainly taught us to take nothing for granted in Bach and can occasionally be wonderful. On the other hand, a fugue like the G sharp minor, while it may be refreshingly swift compared with Tureckís funereal pace, seems intended to remove any suspicion of expressivity or feeling from the music; he makes it sound merely nondescript. And then so much is purely wayward; he start a fugue with one sort of phrasing and suddenly changes it half-way through, and we know this goes against the baroque aesthetic. So overall, I canít feel at home here either.

All things considered then, I would say the Richter can replace the Fischer as the classic piano version. It is, of course, "old-fashioned" Bach, but it never seems to me to essay a sort of expressivity which is alien to the high baroque.

Just a word about voice-leading. On the piano, you can bring out the fugal entries in a way that you canít on either the organ or the harpsichord, though to some degree it might be done on the clavichord. How far are we justified in doing this on the piano, when we know that Bachís own instrument had not this possibility? Not too much, I would say, since we should experience the entry in its proper contrapuntal context Ė if it sounds like a "melody and accompaniment" something is wrong. Tureck systematically and outrageously does this, reducing several of the more beautiful fugues to mathematical schemes. Fischer and Richter seem to me to have it about right Ė they make use of the pianoís ability to give subject and counter-subject different tone-colours, but the lines can always be heard in dialogue with one another. Gould sometimes does the one, sometimes the other.

The recording sounds as if the mikes were placed none too close to the piano Ė the sound is warm but not always sharply defined. But even here, after the close-miking of Tureck and Gould I felt this was at any rate a fault in the right direction.

There are a number of probably important modern "48"s that I donít know, and if you favour the harpsichord you probably havenít read this far anyway; I am quite sure, however, that Richterís overall achievement will stand as classic. Other highlights that reverberate through my head as I write are the upfront vitality of the F major, the magical balance between the hands in the slower part of the E minor prelude, followed by an exultant fugue which somehow makes me think of Breughelís ice-skaters, and the sheer delicacy of the bird-song trilling in the G minor prelude. I trust Book 2 is on the way.

There used, incidentally, to be a Richter version of the "48" available on HMV LPs, deriving from Melodiya tapes. Since it is fairly improbable that an Austrian-made tape would have been taken up by Melodiya, issued by EMI and now have worked its way round to RCA, the fascinating possibility exists that there may be two recordings of this great work by Richter. Does any reader have more definite information?

Christopher Howell


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