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Jonathan Woolf
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Jonathan Woolf
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alternatively Crotchet


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well Tempered Clavier - Books I and II BWV 846-893 (1722, 1744)
Edwin Fischer (piano)
rec. No.3 Studio, Abbey Road, London 1933-36
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 3919582 [3 CDs: 79:30 + 81:41 + 76:37] 
Experience Classicsonline

Fischer's expressive, sometimes digitally compromised set of the 48 is one of the landmarks of the gramophone. Once past the etude like over-velocity of the opening Prelude one succumbs to the necessarily personalised, intellectually concentrated and profound intensity of Fischer's music making - never over romanticised or too free, never subject to too much rhythmic compression. It's a necessary historical benchmark for a collection. 

But as with my review of Menuhin’s 1930s Bach recordings in this GROC series I have to register grave disappointment with these transfers by a restoration engineer I otherwise admire, Andrew Walter at Abbey Road. 

I dug out some of my 78s of Book I and also Keith Hardwick’s LP CHS 7631882 and did some comparisons. What’s going on with this series? When it comes to 1930s material – I can’t speak much more widely than that – something wicked this way comes. 

Once more  noise-shaped via the Prism SNS system for optimum sound quality” is the name of the game. To my ears this noise-reduction sauce is ruinous but perhaps its raison d’être is a lowest common denominator one. It seems to suck the life force out of recordings, to remove room ambience and to induce tiredness in the listener. As with the Menuhin I actually felt more and more tired as I suffered successive Books. 

You can actually hear the noise reduction rumbling into action before Fischer plays a note, before even the shellac crackle dimly starts. The excessive concentration on piercing treble frequencies misrepresents Fischer’s tone; Keith Hardwick’s work was more genuinely reflective of the original 78 and was warmer and more pliant across the range. The shellac noise is also more “natural” on the LP; this mad current obsession that some companies have with suppressing it is plain barmy. You can hear the qualities of No.3 Studio, Abbey Road, in which Fischer recorded, quite clearly in the Hardwick work, which of course is predictable given that the original 78s were being respected as artefacts. 

With the GROC incarnation you hear no real room ambience at all, just a piercing white light that promotes a tonally diffused, unrepresentative approximation of Fischer’s playing. There has already been one poor CD transfer of the 48 and we really don’t need another. 

Jonathan Woolf


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