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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II (1744)
CD 1: Preludes and fugues (BWV 870-877)
CD 2: Preludes and fugues (BWV 878-884)
CD 3: Preludes and fugues (BWV 885-893)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Recorded at Teldex Studio, Berlin, 26-29 December 2004. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61940-2 [3 CDs: 49:30 + 50:53 + 66:44]
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I greatly enjoyed listening to Barenboim’s recording of Book I, recorded exactly a year before he returned to perform Book II: review . However, while that performance sounded beautiful, I felt that, at times, the wonderful complexity and variety of moods that can be found in those pieces was ironed out, in favour of a more unified and consistent tone across the entire work.

So how does this new recording fare? Overall, I find it an even more convincing demonstration of how Bach’s astonishing music can benefit from the sonority of the modern piano. Barenboim is not afraid to use the pedals, and to blur the different strands of the polyphonic texture – in this way, perhaps his approach can be seen as commercial rather than academic – in other words, the performance is very much aimed at the listener rather than the musician. The latter may well complain that the performance is much more Barenboim than Bach, that Bach takes a lot of work to be truly appreciated, and that Barenboim is only providing surface details rather than genuine insight and depth. But spend time with this recording and it will become clear that he shows great insight, and that some of the preludes in particular surpass any that I have heard on piano (including the celebrated recordings of Fischer, Gould, Tureck, Richter, and Hewitt).

Take, for example, the conversational interplay of lines in the prelude in C minor, the tiny extended pauses that draw the listener in. I am convinced that his dalliance with jazz has provided an enhanced feel for the importance of the space between the notes – he really allows the music to breathe. The prelude in C sharp minor, is spellbinding, but in contrast, the fugue sounds too measured, almost harsh (a similar approach is employed to much better effect in the fugue in E minor (CD 2)).

In Barenboim’s hands, the prelude in C sharp minor is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, although, towards the end, the tempo is slowed to the extent that the music loses its structure and shape. In the companion fugue, however, the music sounds, dare I say it, rather dull. Indeed, he is least successful in the fugues taken at speed – the impression being that he is simply less interested in these pieces (this is something that he shares with Richter). He is, however, redeemed in the following prelude (D major), which is magnificent, and the fugue serene and laden with melancholia.

Occasionally (as was also the case in Book I), Barenboim falls foul of directing our attention rather too much to what he identifies as foreground and background in the music. Listen, for example, to the fugues in E flat major and D sharp minor – the music sounds less interesting than it should, because the complex harmonic structure is buried in the background. In contrast, the prelude in D sharp minor could not be more different – wonderful, lively and wholly involving.

Highlights on CD 2 include the preludes in F major and F sharp minor and the prelude and fugue in F minor, all of which are beautifully phrased. However, perhaps the finest coupling of all is the prelude and fugue in F sharp minor, both of which are marked by an astonishing display of controlled but expressive playing, in which the genius of Bach’s writing shines through.

During the time I have spent with this performance, the distinct feeling has emerged that, overall, Barenboim is more successful in the preludes than the fugues. The preludes, surely more immediately accessible than the fugues, lend themselves particularly well to his inclination to present us with foreground (i.e., perceived melody) and background (or ‘harmony’). The fugues, on the other hand, to be successful, require all voices to be heard in both their horizontal independence and vertical unification. That all the lines are clearly articulated is surely central to the very purpose of a fugue, and if they are not separable to the listener, the immense satisfaction in hearing a Bach fugue is lessened. That said, a number of the fugues are played wonderfully well. Take, for example, those in G minor and A flat major. The first is played in a staccato, jabbing manner while the second is soft and dream-like – but both are very effective.

Of the remaining pieces on CD 3, the A minor coupling is one of the most successful couplings, full of insight and energy. The final prelude (B minor) is a personal favourite, beautiful, playful and quiet. The fugue is also tremendous, rounding off an occasionally disappointing but largely wonderful, expressive and involving set.

Peter Bright



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