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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988 [94:14]
Aria variata in A minor BWV 989 [16:56]
Italian Concerto in F BWV 971 [13:30]
Overture in the French Style (Partita in B minor) BWV 831 [33:48]
Rosalyn Tureck (piano)
rec. No.3 Studio Abbey Road, London 1957 (Goldberg Variations), 1959 (Aria variata, Overture, Italian Concerto)
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5096472
[78:53 + 79:44]
Experience Classicsonline


It’s not that long ago since a very similar programme appeared in Philips’ Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series. That two disc set [456 979 2] had the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture; the difference between it and this EMI GROC lies in the substitution by EMI of the Four Duets BWV802-805 by the Aria variata in A minor BWV 989. Otherwise things are identical.

The Goldberg Variations was recorded in London in 1957 and is the second of the many traversals left by Tureck – six altogether, at the last count, have survived. Tureck was an extraordinary Bach player, a musician of exceptional control, intellectual concentration and forensic probity. The famous slowness of her performances derives from an almost microscopic examination of the score, a process by which the harmonic corpuscles of the music are laid bare. In a way this kind of playing is as radical as Gould’s almost contemporaneous exploration of Bach; their means are mutually exclusive, utterly dissimilar and irreconcilable except in the immensity of the undertaking.  Theirs was not the only way; at the same time that Gould and Tureck were setting down their Goldberg Variations the Scottish pianist James Friskin was also recording it; Friskin, the husband of composer and violist Rebecca Clarke, represented an altogether older consensus and his playing sounds utterly different from their twin extremes. Fine playing though in its own tradition and overlooked.

Tureck was the Galen or William Harvey of Bach playing – a musician who studied the structure of the body and subjected it to the minutest examination. Her performance therefore lasts an astounding ninety-four minutes and the opening Aria alone lasts over six minutes. The result is a reading that is necessarily ponderous in the extreme, long on contrapuntal explication but without any sense of dance or movement. There is almost a sense of defiance about this kind of approach, a noble stasis that rejects frippery – or assumptions of frippery – in favour of a marmoreal, granitic monolith of a performance. True, many of the voicings are refined and Tureck’s musicianship can never be questioned; but at every turn one is confronted by a sense of the music that runs counter, ironically, to the body’s natural sense of motion. The forensic scientist has frozen counterpoint and in doing so has robbed the music of its true direction.

The Italian Concerto begins and ends with grandly rolled chords. It’s slow too but not suffocatingly so; there’s more of a sense of direction, less of a sense of an imposed, rational, schematic intellectualism at work. It is still sufficiently slow to generate a defined retardation of the rhythmic impetus of the music, though the slow movement benefits most from this kind of clarity and exposure – penetratingly done. The Aria variata is heard in Tureck’s own edition. It tempts her rather less to excess and it helps that each variation is concise. The opening variation for example, though an Adagio, has a surety of line that appeals ratter than congeals. The French Overture though is reminiscent rather more of Tureck’s way with the Goldberg Variations. One feels the greater the intellectual challenge the more extreme her responses. I think it would be fair to say that there is a greater sense of fluidity in the performance than there ever was in the Goldbergs but the static, caught-in-aspic tendency all too forseeably saps the music making of momentum.

In the case of the Goldberg Variations Tureck’s most impressive legacy is contained in her VAI recording – altogether more human and directional. As for transfers you should go for the Philips. This EMI GROC has been done in by their noise reduction system. It’s calamitous for 1930s recordings and, though not as extreme, not much cop for 1950s discs either. The Studio 3 acoustic has been sucked out; listen to this EMI version and tell me if you can hear any room ambience at all. You can’t – so go for the Philips if you want Tureck’s astonishing edifice on your shelves.

Jonathan Woolf 

 




 


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