The publication history of this relatively early piano recording of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier is not provided in detail with this release, but a little research on my part showed that its most recent manifestation was in the early 1990s on Deutsche Grammophon. The back of the label to this release also gives 1971 for DG, which would have been an LP set, through the sessions come from 1950 and sound fairly antique at that.
Having had my fill recently of new recordings of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, by Roger Woodward, Sergey Schepkin, Maurizio Pollini and Angela Hewitt among others, I felt it was time to cast back and see how things were BG – Before Gould. It is interesting to note that, even if they share little else, both Walter Gieseking and Glenn Gould’s WTC fit onto three CDs, where nowadays the norm is four, and Woodward’s and Barenboim’s had to be spread over five. Gould’s tempi can be extreme, to the extent that you have the feeling he just wants to get it all over with at times, but even with a certain amount of expressive lingering here and there the older generation of pianists seem less inclined to hang about. There may be practical reasons for this, but in any case Gieseking’s recording was recorded for radio broadcast and in fact never originally intended for release on record.
Edwin Fischer started everything off with his 1930s complete WTC, and this is understandably still considered by some to be one of the finest ever. Rosalyn Tureck’s mono 1954 recording post-dates Gieseking but both of these early competitors have distinct advantages. Fischer’s very early recordings still sound remarkably good if you can find a mastering which isn’t strangled by over-compression to remove hiss. I recommend the Naxos Historical edition as the best around, and his luminous playing is indeed timeless and noble. Tureck’s is of a more lyrical nature, sustaining lines in a vocal way which is part of the legacy which also makes Angela Hewitt’s Bach recordings rather special.
Walter Gieseking isn’t as poetic as either Fischer or Tureck, but neither should he be discounted as an also-ran. The swift but rhapsodic opening C major Prelude is a colourful rendering that almost makes an impressionistic flowing river from Bach’s flowing harmonies and figuration. The following Fugue shows up some of Gieseking’s less appealing features. Apart from some distortion in the recorded sound, the fugal statements are somewhat four-square; well balanced in terms of dynamic relationships, but plonked on one’s plate rather like a cold steak: there you have it, take it or leave it. The helter-skelter second C minor Prelude pre-warns of some dodgy near collapses later on in the cycle, but Gieseking is willing to take risks, and where everything works and fits together the ride in can be spectacular. Where Gieseking is always reliable is in the dance-like feel he can give where the music and the mood takes. The Fugue in C sharp major from Book 1 is a case in point, joyous and uplifting, I would challenge anyone to hear this without it raising a smile. There is poetry as well. The following C sharp minor Prelude has some lovely phrasing, though Gieseking does have a tendency to accelerate through some passages both here and elsewhere, sometimes more noticeably, such as in the edgy Prelude No.6 D minor. The C sharp minor fugue, one of the best in Book 1, is taken at a stately pace and is full of good things, but again the fugal entries are not helped by the lack of variety in colour in the piano sound, something for which I am however prepared to lay the blame with the recording to a large extent.
Disc two starts with the Prelude and Fugue in B flat, in which something of a collapse happens 58 seconds in. There are certainly a fair few suspect moments throughout this set, and Book 2 is also not immune, though in general I have to say Book 2 is stronger than Book 1. It would be good to be able to balance the negative details against some truly sublime moments, but favourite preludes such as the wonderful C sharp major are somewhat plagued by that sense of acceleration, actual, or even just implied and impending. The fugue which follows is also not entirely free from some keyboard hacking towards the end. Michel Roubinet’s booklet notes refer to Gieseking’s ‘rhythmic freedom... [which] invokes on the modern piano the colourful art of improvisation at which Bach excelled.’ With this I would hasten to agree, though with the caveat that such an approach is not without risks which can become less of an adventure and more of an ordeal with each repeated hearing.
All in all this WTC is a bit of a mixed blessing. There are plenty of good things here, and the historical nature of the recording and performance all add to the interest. Finger faltering and technical slips here and there are forgivable, though I find this combined with some of the extreme-extremer tempi hard to live with. The rather colourless recording is also something I can put up with, though it does little to flatter Gieseking’s playing. This does sound as if it had more to offer than the German studio could capture, though not quite as much as Edwin Fischer or Roselyn Tureck in their Bach recordings.
Gieseking’s Bach is in essence rather fine, and the renewed availability of this set is to be welcomed. His playing has an intelligence which is attractive and frequently rather absorbing, and he has a no-nonsense approach which has much in common with later thinking on Bach performance. Gieseking’s playing often has a fluid character, with a lyrical nature in the slower movements which is only stymied by his own tendency to rush onwards rather than maintain a more stable sense of measure. The sins here are those in detail, and the kind which would be likely to plague any live and unedited performance, the feel of which this recording certainly has. This is not a WTC which will knock any of my favourites from their elevated perches, but is one I am nonetheless glad to have made its acquaintance.