Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier , Book I, BWV 846-869
BWV 846-857 [51:48]
BWV 858-869 [63:40]
David Korevaar (piano)
rec. 28-29 January 1998, Theatre C, Performing Arts Centre, SUNY Purchase, New York.
MSR CLASSICS MS 1003 [51:48 + 63:40]
David Korevaar is an interesting artist, whose work on the MSR label includes some Ravel, and on Ivory Classics with Brahms and Beethoven. These were received with a resounding ‘also ran’ commentary, though Korevaar’s duo partnership in Beethoven sonatas with violinist Edwin Dusinberre was a recording of the month in 2010, while also riding high on the caption competition opportunity stakes for CD cover art.
There is a veritable glut of Bach WTC on piano - especially Book I - in the catalogues these days, and so it’s going to be hard for any performer to stand out from the crowd. The music is so wonderful however, that it’s sometimes just a question of ‘ooh, this is very nice’ whoever happens to be occupying the CD player at any one time. This is a re-release of David Korevaar’s 1998 recording, and you may have seen it with that rather over-fed portrait of Bach in a spectral blue on the cover in its previous manifestation. Now with a more ascetic title page facsimile as a backdrop, this slim-line double disc is nicely if not outstandingly presented with useful notes on a leaflet-style insert.
Korevaar’s performance is beautifully recorded, and his playing is deliciously sensitive much of the time. The instrument is not announced on this release, but I understand he played these on a Baldwin piano, which carries a very nice tone and a warmly intimate sonority. His approach is more to the romantic side of the field, with a certain amount of pulling around when it comes to tempi. This again is mostly done in a tasteful way, and I’m very much prepared to allow plenty of leeway for personal touches and interpretation over a more rigorous Baroque principled ‘motor on, let’s go’ reading. There are however elements in the playing which irk a little, and these need to be pointed out.
One instance is already apparent in the first fugue in C major. For some reason, Korevaar wants to make a feature of the first descending element of the main theme, and those three notes are a constant touch on the brakes. It’s a light enough touch, just the kind to stop your car pitching downhill too fast on a bridge, but its presence is more of a mannerism and a distraction than something which creates that ‘aaaah’ feeling. The famous C minor prelude which follows also has a certain amount of ‘leaning against’ significant notes. The actual writing in the piece renders this fairly unnecessary in my view, and the little rush needed with the remaining notes in order to keep a stable tempo is another minus point. Some pieces just demand evenness, and Korevaar is determined to add soup. The C minor prelude restores confidence, with no extra treatment of the themes and a consequent feel of transparent counterpoint and drive.
This is pretty much the story throughout this WTC Book I. Most of the pieces are played superbly, and can stand comparison with the very best anywhere. There are emotionally charged deliveries such as the beautifully sustained C-sharp minor prelude, which may see-saw a little too much in the rubato stakes for some, but still creates a wonderful atmosphere.
As a recording to which I’ve returned most in recent times, Angela Hewitt’s 2008 recording on Hyperion shows a similar sense of restraint, and also plenty of give and take when it comes to tempo within phrases. Her articulation makes the biggest difference, lifting the ends of notes to give more space for significant moments. Korevaar is not particularly pedal-heavy, but Hewitt is pedal-off. Korevaar is not heavy handed either when it comes to the bigger statements such as the magnificent C sharp minor fugue. Both he and Hewitt are lyrical, Hewitt starting smaller and allowing greater space for the architecture of the fugue to grow in front of you, but Korevaar shaping nicely and with an unerring sense of direction. My only complaint here is his feeling of gradual acceleration alongside the growing arch of the fugue’s form. This in my view is something which should be done with dynamics only, not being the place to over-egg the pudding when it comes to excitement. I had a feeling I might have been a little unfair to Maurizio Pollini when I reviewed his WTC I, so dug his recording out to see what he made of this fugue. Much as I admire Pollini’s pianism and musicianship I still can’t warm a great deal to his Bach. His playing of the fugue builds nicely and keeps tempo, but the shading of colour in the counterpoint is greyer than both Hewitt and Korevaar, and the general procession-feel of most of the notes doesn’t hold much expressive strength for me.
Without going down the blow-by blow route, I’ll wind up by concluding that this WTC I has a great deal to offer, but can also be a source of frustration - depending on your own tastes and mood of the moment. Korevaar is certainly his own man, and I can appreciate his personal touch. I had imagined there might be some comparisons to be made with another American source: that of Sergey Schepkin, but here is another individualist whose romanticism is more infused with the spirit of Glenn Gould than Korevaar, who seems keen to avoid any such an influence at all costs. My own personal preference is with Schepkin in this regard, if only because it means that tempi are held steady and the expressive moments come almost through dynamics and articulation alone. Schepkin also manages to bring a greater sense of warm humanity and even humour to Bach. Korevaar can be bouncy, such as with the opening of the Prelude in D minor, but this isn’t kept for long, and pedal and legato lines soon take over, as well as that feeling of acceleration which is noticeable at patchy moments throughout the set. Korevaar has warmth and good humour, just not quite as much as some other players. I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say his playing is ‘earnest’, but it does cover some aspects when making comparisons. Take the Prelude in F sharp minor for instance. It’s nice and swift with Korevaar, with some punchy accents and plenty of rhythmic drive. Angela Hewitt goes at a more restrained tempo, but gives more character to the running-note figures, making the music more conversational than ‘theme plus accompaniment’. The subsequent fugue is another of Bach’s incredible masterpieces, and Korevaar again shapes with elegance and warm expression, maintaining a consistent tempo and using rubato for significant expressive points. Angela Hewitt on the other hand raises the bar by lowering the floor, opening out the beginning of the fugue into a sparse landscape which flourishes as the piece progresses, using a kind of musical punctuation to accentuate points of change and building to Bach’s magnificently enigmatic an elusive central climax where Korevaar winds up and down over a more evenly verdant field. Of the remaining pieces, only the Fugue in A minor comes across as rather needlessly clunky and four-square amongst a second disc which is generally rather fine. In some ways, this gives a similar impression to Roger Woodward’s recording, though frequently in speeded-up mode. Woodward is more sober with his rubati, and on occasion is even organ-like with his tempi - though this may be an impression brought on by the somewhat cavernous acoustic of his recording. Even while my allegiance has moved more towards Hewitt of late, I still very much enjoy the rich atmosphere and powerful statements he creates.
For me, David Korevaar’s recording of the Bach’s WTC I will join impressive and perhaps less mainstream or well known pianists like Vardo Rumessen; at times idiosyncratic, but still highly enjoyable, sure of technique and musically deserving of their place in a busy market. I shall certainly be looking out for his Book II but won’t be recommending Korevaar as an absolute first choice, if only as there are others I would choose above him. Of these Angela Hewitt’s second recording on Hyperion and Till Fellner on ECM remain the top for modern recordings, Roger Woodward not too far behind, and with Sviatoslav Richter as one of the classic foundation stones on which this ever expanding pyramid of excellence is being built. Glenn David Korevaar’s playing is ‘well up there’, but with just a few too many gusts of wind in his sails for ultimate comfort.
A worthy part of an ever expanding pyramid of WTC excellence.