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
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.
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?