Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869 (1722) 
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
rec. September 2008 and February 2009, Herkulessaal, Munich
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8078 [53:24 + 57:01] 

Johann Sebastian BACH
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846-869 (1722, rev.ca1740) 
Sergey Schepkin (piano)
rec. 14-15 January 1998 and 31 July 1998, New England Conservatory,
Jordan Hall, Boston, MA.
ONGAKU RECORDS 024-113 [55:24 + 60:11]

Arriving at this point, with two different versions of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I on my desk, seems to have generated some kind of crisis in my abilities as an objective reviewer. Having heard and very much enjoyed Sergey Schepkin’s recording of Book II, I was always going to be looking out for his Book I and so I leapt at the opportunity to review it, to complete the set and the journey as it were. Is this not, however, how almost all of us regard our acquisition of music? If you are a fan of Maurizio Pollini aren’t you going to want to hear what he does with Bach’s wonderful preludes and fugues whatever anyone says?

To be entirely honest, I go through phases with some of these recordings. For a time I would try Schepkin, find him too romantic, a little too keen to pull the tempi around in the preludes. Returning for a serious listen once again and the same thing is happening with Book I, but with spring in the air and a more positive outlook I find I can once again ‘follow’ his musical arguments. Aspects of his playing hark back to Glenn Gould, in the drier articulation of the right hand in the opening prelude for instance. At the same time Schepkin freely admits to admiring Sviatoslav Richter, and his more romantic leanings can remind one of the great master, in the expansion of the Fugue IV in C sharp minor for instance, which Schepkin allows to grow and tell its story over nearly four and a half minutes. Roger Woodward’s recording has taken on something of the character of a benchmark for me in this repertoire, and his recording of this fugue is only just over four minutes, Pollini nearly five. Who’s counting? Are they any good is the question, and yes, they’re all good, so why should we have to choose one over the other?

The answer is; you don’t. Nobody is stuck with any kind of ‘street cred’ issues in which Bach they prefer - you find what you like, and you can stick with it, or you can be fickle and jump ship from time to time. Me personally, I used to like to play Gould off against Richter, but that was when I was younger and there wasn’t so much to choose from. Now we have internet dating for music, and you can get to know your Bach online for hardly any money at all, stick it on your portable player and flaunt it like a trophy partner wherever you like. These are shallow consumerist issues but ones we all encounter and have to deal with in our own way. All I’m trying to say is that this isn’t a Pollini versus Schepkin review. Both have their qualities, positive, and sometimes perhaps not so positive. So if you can suck your feet out of the subjective quagmire and make a decision one way or another - for today at least - then that might help, or you can have both and see how quickly they start arguing with each other about which one you take out more often and why. Nag, nag: it’s always the same with CDs, but then, it’s not my place to tell you how to live your personal Bach ...

I think I’ve worked out whatever problem it is I have with Sergey Schepkin’s playing. I still like it, but he sometimes does have a way of appearing to sleep on both sides of the Bach blanket. He will articulate with Gould-like crispness here, and sing with Richter-like lines there, sometimes in the same prelude or fugue. The liner-notes for the disc once again have an interview with J. Quentin Parker on Schepkin’s thoughts about playing this music, and I find I agree with just about everything he says, right down to being surprised at not liking Ton Koopman’s harpsichord recordings of this music. What does he say here? “For me, a fugue of Bach is a piece of chamber music, which presumes that all participating lines are equal in importance, and it is their interaction that creates the interest of the piece ... A piece of Bach’s polyphony can be compared with a conversation on a fascinating topic between several fabulous individuals. Each line has a distinct personality that the performer must bring to life.” Yes, I agree - and perhaps this solves my issues, that the distinct personalities and character of certain lines are the two sides of that stylistic argument, perfectly within their right to exist simultaneously, and made distinct through their individual characterisation. Add to this that, as chamber music player, I am constantly at work deciding whether my ‘voice’ at any particular moment is of greater or lesser importance and therefore not equal at any one moment, and Sergey and I can argue on happily into the night as to whether or not we agree, or whether what I perceive him as saying is what he really means to say. I actually very much like that these voices are distinct and can be followed as individual arguments. I also like Schepkin’s ideas about the balance in hierarchy between the horizontal and linear aspects of the music, and the subservient or even incidental harmonic aspects which arise as a result of the interaction of the horizontal. Maybe I was just feeling needlessly combative just a moment ago, but either way the more I listen and understand, the more I like his playing as well.

Maurizio Pollini doesn’t give us any insights into his thoughts in the booklet, allowing the music to speak for itself, and allowing Paulo Petazzi to give us some historical context and brief commentary on some of the highlights. I don’t have the feeling Pollini falls into any particular camp, though he is most certainly further away from Glenn Gould than Schepkin on the Gould/Richter-o-metre. The only thing he really shares with Gould is a tendency to sing along, which may or may not disturb you. It’s not all the time, and certainly not as loud and persistent as Gould, but there is a fair bit of sniffing and gentle crooning going on, which to be honest I hadn’t expected. Have a listen to the beginning of the Fugue XIV in F sharp minor and you might be excused for thinking there was a fireman in breathing apparatus in attendance, just in case Maurizio should catch fire with all those sharps around in the key signature.

The first time I played this was over my little old Wharfedale Active Diamonds, survivors of the 1980s, which I have parked either side of my desk at work like Kinky Friedman’s two telephones. I have a pathological desire not to bother anyone nearby with any music I might happen to want on at any particular time, and in this I am quite happy to relinquish any prospects of joining the building or construction trade. I doubt the lads at Bovis would be that keen on having Bach’s WTC on in any case, that or they would have preferred Book II, or Glenn Gould. In any case, I had the sound right down, and found myself very much liking what I was hearing. Pollini has a nice lyrical touch, and where it counts his ability to present a significant polyphonic argument is as good as any of the competition. If you want to hear what I mean go back to that Fugue IV in C sharp minor and wait at least until the low entry of the theme at 2:55, and then see if you have it in you to just switch it off and go about your business without the feeling that someone has torn off a chunk of your shadow. No, I still like Pollini, even if it is only that power of suggestion which has me liking best what I’m hearing at any particular moment, which also seems as good a reason as any for giving up reviewing. My problem with this version emerged when I brought my precious prize home and started listening through much too expensive headphones at a decent volume. This is not a huge problem and may not bother many people, but I find the recording to be a bit monochrome. It’s decent enough piano sound, but when the dynamics go up the acoustic volume, by which I mean bulk rather than ‘it goes up to 11’, tends to fill up with more-of-same, rather than with much change in intensity. This may be the piano, the recording, the acoustics or probably a combination of any number of factors, but after plenty of trying through different speakers and generally tinkering around this does turn out to be something which prevents this otherwise noble rendition becoming one of my desert island selections.

A noble rendition it most certainly is however, and I wouldn’t want anyone going away with the impression that Pollini is out of the running merely because of a mildly drab recording. As I said, with the volume down or while driving and considerations of sound quality less of a relevance, I found myself genuinely enjoying his playing. There are a few of the fugues which ‘go on a bit’ without a real sense of variety or as much organic development or narrative strength as with other players. If anything, Pollini has a tendency to speed up in places, but there is also a feel of honest consistency in his approach, and a kind of reliability which can also have its appeal. I feel Pollini delivers his best moments where the music is at its most lyrical and least technically complex, such as the Prelude XII in F minor and other similar points at which the combination of melodic shape and restraint can create a magical atmosphere. This is not to say he can’t build up a storm or put together a convincing five-part fugue, but that distinction of voices we were discussing with Schepkin earlier is something which does become a little subsumed in what sounds like a more vertical approach to counterpoint, and the sound, which does make my brain switch off and become too much of a passive partner in the whole musical transaction after a while. Will I be on the lookout for Pollini’s Book II? Yes indeed, but with some hope that it may have a bit more lasting power, in the same way Richter’s Book I does for me over his Book II

Do I have a favourite? If we’re talking only Book I then yes I do, and that’s Till Fellner on ECM. Sorry guys.

If we’re talking the entire cycle of both books then it’s Roger Woodward and Sviatoslav Richter still at the top, and Sergey Schepkin also at the top when he’s on the player. If I ever do come to my senses and give up this reviewing lark, then you can cite the ‘Schepkin Effect’ as a significant factor.

Dominy Clements