Work: The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-869
Performer: Edwin Fischer (piano)
Label: Naxos Historical
I've been trying to figure out for the last few days what I could possibly say that would do The Well-Tempered Clavier justice. This is a huge and dense work, and even though I've been listening to it since I first got interested in music, I still feel like I've only scratched the surface. Not only that, but until recently I didn't even have a recording of it that I liked. I've never been able to listen to Gould's: I feel like he blows through a lot of it as if he's bored and wants to get it over with. My dad has an LP set by Jörg Demus which I remember liking a lot when I was younger -- very lucid and straightforward -- but he hasn't had a chance to make CDs out of them yet, and I don't think they've ever been commercially rereleased. In high school I had CDs of Book I played by Keith Jarrett, who I found dull, and Book II played by Andras Schiff, who I found annoyingly eccentric. And actually, that brings me to the kind of weird story of how I wound up with this recording. At some point during a move between college and my parent's house, my Jarrett and Schiff The Well-Tempered Clavier CDs disappeared. I kept thinking that they'd turn up somewhere unexpected, as lost CDs often do, but it never happened; and so when The Well-Tempered Clavier started looming on the wholecollection horizon last summer, I decided to look around for a recording that I actually liked to replace them. I think I discovered this one via the clips on the iTunes music store; I can't remember exactly. But the funny part is that I discovered it right before a family trip to the Netherlands, and because I was expecting to be so prolific in this journal, I actually ordered Fischer's Well-Tempered Clavier CDs from a German distributor so that I could receive them in the Netherlands without paying an arm and a leg for shipping. Needless to say, I had no idea that I wouldn't wind up writing about them until November.
Anyway, I really do like this recording a lot, in general. It's actually the first recording of the piece ever made, from I think 1935 (I don't have the CD box on me at the moment), and it sounds very much like a product of its time, complete with terrible sound quality and beautiful tone. Fischer is a Romantic, but not of the sort who would try to schmaltz up Bach and turn him into Chopin; instead he plays the pieces straightforwardly but with a luminescence that I can only describe as "mystical." Unsurprisingly, then, the pieces he gets the most out of are the ones he can play tenderly and with a slight glow of unreality -- the C# Major Prelude, the F# Major Fugue, the B Major Prelude. When he tries to be lively and virtuosic, it sometimes dissolves into mild chaos (the Bb Major Prelude), and when he tries to be stately and intense, he sometimes comes off as heavy-handed (the G Minor Fugue). Still, it's a recording of the WTC Book I that I can enjoy pretty much all of, and that alone is something special. I still want to get a few more recordings and compile an ideal Well-Tempered Clavier from each pianist's best movements, but who knows when I'll have time to do that.
Anyway, I tend to prefer Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier to Book I, so in a sense I feel like I'm just waiting for the really juicy stuff around the corner. I'm sure I'm doing the piece an injustice by thinking that way, but I can't help it, especially because I'm anxious to get this project moving again now that I'm only very busy rather than maniacally busy. And I can say that there are a few pieces in Book I that feel formulaic, which was my original reason for preferring Book II. This is especially true of the G Minor Prelude and Fugue, which, actually, were the pieces that originally led me to that conclusion. Still, there's a lot of great stuff here, and since I have a habit of starting at the beginning even though the piece is too long to really listen to in a single sitting, I've never gotten to know a lot of the great stuff that's towards the end.
Which brings me to another thing I want to talk about in this post: a weird experience I just had with the B Minor Fugue, the very last piece in the Book. There are a few factors that accidentally combined to make this happen:
1. There's a recurring passage in the fugue in which the lower parts drop out, leaving just two, in dialogue, in the ethereal high register. This is nearly identical to a moment in the fugue from Beethoven's Op. 131 String Quartet -- not only does the texture drop out in the same way, but if I'm remembering right, the two higher parts play the same exact melody. I assume this is not a coincidence (and I've written before about Bach pieces that Beethoven seems to have been paying deliberate homage to).
2. This is one of two very early 20th-century piano recordings I've listened to extensively. The other is Artur Schnabel's recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas. Schnabel shares both Fischer's luminous tone and his occasional sloppiness (actually, Schnabel is much sloppier), and the recording quality is similarly bad.
3. Because Fischer is of the generation he is, he has no qualms about occasionally doubling Bach's left-hand parts at the octave. He does this at one point in the B Major fugue, resulting in a texture that's pretty similar to that of the fugue in Beethoven's Op. 110 Piano Sonata.
Add up 1, 2 and 3, and what do you get?
Anyway, I could keep going all night, so I'll just mention one other thing that I didn't notice until recently: this piece is full of internal cross-references. When the E Minor Prelude breaks into double-time halfway through, it quotes the C Minor Prelude almost exactly. I never noticed that before! And not only does the A Major Fugue have a theme whose first two measures are rhythmically identical to those of the C Minor Fugue's theme (something I noticed ages ago), but the two pieces end the same way: with a long pedal point, a lot of diminished chords, and a whole series of Picardy thirds. And, of course, the same rhythm, since the endings are based on the rhythmically-mostly-identical fugue themes. Who knew? I also think that if you reduced the G Major Fugue theme to its most important notes, you'd get almost the same thing as if you did the same to the E Minor Fugue from Book II -- and I mean without transposing anything, which means that the "corresponding" notes all serve different harmonic functions. I'm not sure about that, though.
P.S. I feel like this post comes off kind of joyless. My experience of listening to the piece certainly isn't joyless, even if a few pieces here and there are a little formulaic. I'm just kind of tired and don't feel like writing in all caps with exclamation points after every sentence. Edwin Fischer is more of an "ahhhhh" pianist than a "!!!!!" pianist, anyway.