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Thread: Best Well Tempered Clavier?

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    Senior Member Itullian's Avatar
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    Question Best Well Tempered Clavier?

    Love this music. Best ones out there? Piano versions. Thanks

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    I gather Murray Perahia recorded one of the best-reviewed piano versions.

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    Senior Member kv466's Avatar
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    First name starts with a 'G', last name ends with a 'D'.

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    Senior Member Webernite's Avatar
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    I find Glenn Gould's a bit irritating. Richter's has poor sound quality. If you want a safe-bet, just buy one of the newer sets, like Schiff's or Ashkenazy's. Gulda's is quite old but I like it too.

    I don't think Perahia has recorded it, Polednice.

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    Senior Member Itullian's Avatar
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    you guys are a big help.

    thanks poledance.

    i'll stick with my Hewitt and Schiff, i guess.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Webernite View Post
    I don't think Perahia has recorded it, Polednice.
    What you on about? I have the recording, you fool!

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    Oh crap, no I don't, I have Goldberg Variations... That's how much attention I pay to stupid Bach.

    Yeah, Hewitt is supposed to be good too.

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    Senior Member kv466's Avatar
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    Hey, if we wanna steer this listener down the wrong path by all means. Out of the above mentioned, Gulda is the only one who even understands the music and how it should be played and he does a pretty fine job of it. Heck, let's give 'em Angela Hewitt for that matter! You decide:


    Fugue at 3:53




    And, if you're still awake...fugue at 1:50




    To me it's like watching Michael Jordan play against a whole team of third graders but I'm weird like that so,...I hope you find what you're looking for.
    Last edited by kv466; Oct-26-2011 at 14:25. Reason: was so perturbed i forgot to attach videos

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    Senior Member Amfibius's Avatar
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    I posted this on another forum. The other forum does not have many people who are into classical music, so it was written for that audience in mind. Forgive me if some of the points seem rather obvious or basic to you.

    --

    I thought I would post a survey of recordings of Bach's Well Tempered Klavier. This piece is very special to me - I got hooked onto it at a young age, and pestered my parents to let me learn the piano. Sadly, I had to give away piano lessons when I migrated and went to university. These days, even five year old girls on Youtube can play better than me. How sad! Never mind, I can listen to recordings instead. So here they are:



    Sviatoslav Richter - RCA Victor. For many years, this was my favourite version of the WTK. In fact, I have bought it four times - the first was scratched beyond recognition, the second and third I gave to friends, and the fourth is what I listen to.

    Richter takes more liberties with the score than most people, and fills the music with colour and buoyancy. In the B-flat major prelude for example, he does a rallantando just before the end of the fugue, and then a tremendous accelerando then stops dead. The implied momentum carries you on hanging on the edge of your seat before he calmly starts the fugue. Such rhythmic contrasts may be frowned upon by most Bach enthusiasts but it is exhilarating to listen to.

    Another example - the C Major Prelude (which opens Book I) sounds like morning sunshine. It is so fresh, so buoyant, so full of life. Richter's painted this one with delicate shades, listen carefully from bar to bar - he shades each one slightly differently as if he thought hard about how each bar should sound.

    The disc is not without its eccentricities however. The C-minor prelude is played too fast and too loud, the only thing that holds it together is Richter's hypnotic fingering technique. But that's not Bach, that is Richter. There are examples here and there of the music being Richter's but I won't bore you.

    Overall, an exciting disc which serves up many interesting takes. I bought this disc in the early 90's, and I still listen to it every few months, so it definitely has staying power.



    Andras Schiff - Decca Digital. Schiff is the complete opposite of Richter. Utterly straightlaced, no risks, no fireworks, no fancy reinterpretations of Bach's intentions. Schiff just plays Bach - but if I left it at that, it would be no help to you would it!

    Schiff has a beautiful piano tone, Perahia fans take note. He chooses his tempi well - always well judged, such that the slow bits are not too slow, and leaves him enough space to play demisemiquavers without sounding as if he is crowding them together. No dramatic rallantandos or accelerandos here.

    His playing of the fugues is examplary but for one little weak point. He places a little too much emphasis on the melodic point, such that it becomes hard to hear what the 2nd and 3rd voices are doing. You know they are there, but they are somewhere in the background. Gould and Landowska do not do this - so their interpretations (Landowska's especially) may be less accessible to beginners, but we Bach fans want to hear everything. You just get the feeling that Schiff's sense of counterpoint is not as strong as Gould's or Landowska's. Or even Richter's.

    Once again I have owned this disc for many years. I bought the cassette versions of I and II in the late 80's (was still in high school then!) and enjoyed them for many years. I think I still have them in storage somewhere! I bought the CD's a few years ago and regularly enjoy them.



    Glenn Gould - Sony Classical. No WTK collection is complete without Gould's recordings of I and II. A recording of Gould's Bach C-major prelude was chosen to go on the Voyager I spacecraft. I would imagine that some alien race would be so infuriated by what he has done to Bach that they would want to wipe us out immediately.

    Gould will at once exasperate and amuse you - so in that sense he is not short of entertainment value. His tone is exceedingly dry, not a beautiful Schiff-like tone, but a dry "piano as a big harpsichord" tone. In fact, that is exactly how he plays - under Gould's hands the piano is not an instrument capable of loud and soft, or of extraordinary range of tone colour - he just plays it like a big harpsichord.

    Add to this his annoying tendency to hum and sing and sway to the music (you can hear the swaying as the occasional creak in his chair) and you soon want to dig him out of his grave to kill him again.

    But this is not to take away from Gould's accomplishments which is why I eventually decided to buy it for $90 (one of the more expensive WTK sets out there!). Gould plays with tremendous clarity, that dry tone is even clearer than the highly regarded Schiff version. While you could accuse Schiff of dumbing down Bach a little to make him more accessible, no such thing with Gould - here is Bach at his most intellectual. He seems to be saying, "If you don't understand counterpoint, too bad for you!! It's YOUR problem, not Bach's or mine".

    His playing isn't always a dry academic exercise either. At times he can be drily humorous, at times he chooses unusual tempi, and at times he can just be dead BORING.

    Sum-up. It is quite possible to get fed up of Gould. Despite paying through the nose to buy the disc I don't play it very often. Other versions are more pleasant to listen to.

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    Senior Member Amfibius's Avatar
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    Wanda Landowska - RCA. (Also available on Naxos). Landowska is the grand old lady of Bach. Even her serene face seems to be infused with Bachian wisdom. You can see from the cover art that she is playing a harpsichord, and so she is.

    There is controversy over which is better - the piano or the harpsichord - for the WTK. My own take is - harpsichord may be more historically correct, but it is less accessible for beginners than the piano. The piano has a more pleasant tone, and more readily allows performers to place emphasis on the bits they want you to hear. The piano simply gives more scope for individuality when it comes to performance - as the above discs amply demonstrate. But ... when it comes to Bach, do you think that performers should be allowed to take too much license? I'll let you answer that question.

    Landowska clearly thinks not. She once tetchily told a younger pianist "Very well my dear, you play Bach your way, I will play Bach his way".

    More than any other, I feel that Landowska reaches deeper into the soul of Bach. She combines Schiff's discipline and unerring sense of tempo, with Gould's uncompromising playing, and adds to it a feeling of gentleness and modesty that many find so attractive about Bach. When she wants to make a musical point, she does not go louder or vary the tempo (like Richter) or hum like a madman (Gould), or hide bits of music (Schiff) - instead, she digs deep and makes her point with beauty and grace. Exactly how she does this is impossible for me to describe. All I can say is that you can hear it and feel it and I don't know what she did with her keyboard.

    Downsides of this disc? Well it's a harpsichord. Not just any harpsichord - it is a Pleyel harpsichord. For those who don't know - this harpsichord has a cast iron frame and is made in the manner of a grand piano, except that the strings are plucked, not striked. It has a big, brash sound - many people think it is a truly horrible instrument and they would not be wrong!

    Sum-up. Not for everyone, and certainly not for WTK beginners. But definitely worth having if you are a WTK collector.



    Edwin Fischer - EMI. I bought the Fischer because it is considered THE definitive WTK on piano. This is a very contemplative performance. Fischer shies away from theatrics - no Gould like eccentricities, no Richter-like reinterpretation. Instead you get a quiet and deep look into the WTK.

    Fischer's sense of counterpoint is outstanding, every fugue brings new insights. Despite knowing the WTK like the back of my hand, I whooped with joy of new discovery with every prelude and every fugue!

    The sound is mono, and below average mono at that. Not comparable to some of the later mono recordings of the 1950's, which are really quite good. This recording is relatively free of tape hiss and crackles, compressed frequency range and compressed dynamics which plague other historic recordings (Furtwangler's 1941 Beethoven 9th springs to mind as a particularly egregious example of a poorly preserved historic recording). It is at least good enough for you to hear what Fischer is doing.



    Angela Hewitt - Hyperion. This is the earlier of two offerings from Hyperion of the same pianist playing the same work. This was recorded in 1998. The piano used was a Steinway. The newer recording uses a Fazioli. This is why we have hifi systems - so that we can hear the difference between pianos. The Steinway has a bigger, more assertive "Concert Grand" sound. The Fazioli has a more modest, smaller sound with a gorgeous, luminous tone that others have described as "pearlescent". If you listen to this disc in isolation, you will think there is nothing wrong with the Steinway - it is only when you listen to the later recording that you realize that the Fazioli is a better choice. Steinways should be for Prokofiev, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin. Fazioli seems to suit Bach better. Perhaps it would be good for Debussy as well.

    This was the disc that put Angela Hewitt on the map as the foremost living interpreter of Bach. Hewitt has a trademark grace and simplicity of style that will fool you into thinking that she is expanding no effort at all. This earlier recording is more "conventional" in that it avoids some of the more controversial features in her later recording. In fact, if you were to listen to this, you would think that there is little to recommend it over something like say, Schiff. However, Hewitt imbues each piece with more character - some of them are song-like, some are dance-like, and some of them sound quite princely.

    The total effect of her playing is somewhat subtle, which has caused many people to dismiss this performance as boring. When compared to her newer recording, it certainly is.



    Angela Hewitt 2008 - Hyperion. If you put WTK performances on a spectrum with one end being more authentic (Landowska, Fischer) and the other being more individual (Richter, Gould), Hewitt's earlier recording is in the middle, leaning towards more authentic. People like Landowska and the earlier Hewitt try to make all 48 Preludes and Fugues sound more alike and less individual. Should you make the pieces sound as if they are part of a set, or should you emphasize the individual character of the pieces? If I can sum up this recording in one sentence - the earlier recording is more set-like, the later recording is more individual.

    Each individual Prelude and Fugue has a fresh, different approach. She emphasizes the different tempo and varied her tone from piece to piece. Sometimes this can sound disjointed - e.g. when moving from the D Major to D Minor prelude and fugue the contrast in approach was great.

    There is also rubato. A LOT of rubato. Unexpected accelerandos and rallantandos. Now, i'm all for rubato but it can be tasteless if used too much. And, is rubato even appropriate with Bach? You decide, but here is where Hewitt shows her mastery - her use of rubato was well considered and did not take anything away from the piece. It really sounds natural.

    Hewitt also takes some license with the chords. She would arpeggiate some of them. She license elsewhere as well - she would insert trills where the notes do not indicate trills, and overall her WTK has more adornment than the score. Then again, my score is a music student score. Hers is probably different, given that she is a Bach scholar.



    Gustav Leonhardt - Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. My copy of this disc came from CDJapan. It is an SACD version of a recording made in 1972. The sound quality is amazing!

    This is the second recording in my collection that features a harpsichord from arguably the greatest living harpsichordist. Unlike Landowska's Pleyel harpsichord, Leonhardt uses a period instrument. It sounds more dainty, graceful, and delicate - all good things when it comes to Bach. More than that, there is the trademark Leonhardt sound. Remember that harpsichords do not have loud and soft, so players introduce contrast by playing on different registers (Landowska), or use different timing. Leonhardt uses different inflections - he has a technique where he rests the quill on the string before striking it. With a piano, beats can be emphasized by striking the key harder. Since this is not possible on the harpsichord, players emphasize beats using rhythmic nuances - e.g. a tiny moment of silence before the note. Leonhardt is the most well known exponent of this technique.

    More than that, is his unique phrasing. Leonhardt sounds extraordinarily sober and straightlaced. He uses short lines, some rubato, and he makes the music sound as if it is being spoken. Natural speech has commas, periods, and question marks - Leonhardt plays in such a way that the music seems to rise and fall, along with little pauses, mimicking speech. The effect is one of a kindly, patient grandfather explaining something to a small child.

    Leonhardt is on record saying that when he is in the recording studio, his aim is to play "neatly". In live performance his aim is to play "beautifully". He certainly sounds neat in this record, but is not lacking in beauty. However, the beauty is not consistent - some of the preludes can sound a bit jarring and unpleasant to listen to. It seems as if the pieces where the density of notes is quite high - e.g. where there are large chords - are the ones where the music sounds the most confused.

    Although I think this is definitely a disc worth owning, I do not think it is a fair representation of Leonhardt's ability. If you buy this disc because you want to complete your WTK collection, it is worthwhile. But if you are buying it because you want to hear what Leonhardt can do, look elsewhere.

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    Senior Member Itullian's Avatar
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    wow, thanks Amphibian, please take a rest. i'll check these out.

    the rest of you, chill.

    there's hope for this crowd yet!!!

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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    Am most impressed all-around with the recording by a certain Russian Jew, initials S.F. The recorded sound is somewhat primitive, but Sam easily overcomes that handicap.

    Arthur Loesser does a great job of bringing the music into the understanding of lesser mortals, but his piano is in bad shape, dragging his recording into 2nd place in my pantheon.
    I spent a fortune on deodorant before I realized that people don't like me anyway.

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    Senior Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    Thumbs up

    OK. Off the beaten path I go.

    I own the WTC recorded by Austrian pianist Jörg Demus , and I think it is a very good set.



    The playing is a cross between romantic and baroque, so beware you HIP-sters out there, but for me, this strikes the right balance.

    I do stand behind the Gould recordings, as I happen to think (as kv466 does) that Gould's Bach on the piano is as close to authoritative as it comes, and it definitely is a "clinic" on this piece, but if you look for a listening experience (relaxing, listening experience that is) then Demus is your guy.

    More about the WTC discography here:
    http://bach-cantatas.com/NVD/BWV846-869.htm
    http://bach-cantatas.com/NVD/BWV870-893.htm

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    Senior Member kv466's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hilltroll72 View Post
    Am most impressed all-around with the recording by a certain Russian Jew, initials S.F. The recorded sound is somewhat primitive, but Sam easily overcomes that handicap.

    Arthur Loesser does a great job of bringing the music into the understanding of lesser mortals, but his piano is in bad shape, dragging his recording into 2nd place in my pantheon.
    Hey, my best friend is a Russian Jew!

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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kv466 View Post
    Hey, my best friend is a Russian Jew!
    Um... congratulations?
    I spent a fortune on deodorant before I realized that people don't like me anyway.

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