Classical Music Review: New Releases

Johann Sebastian Bach  × The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II.  Bernard Roberts, piano.  Nimbus 5608/11
(4hrs 17mins).

There is a trend in classical music criticism to treat recordings as entries in a sweepstakes to determine the definitive performance. Yet, each performance brings something to the music and the notion of “best” is, in the long run, meaningless.  We all have subjective favorites, but these are mercurial – although there is always a tendency, with any piece, to recall the first hearing, like first love, fondly.

In the music at hand, a number of recordings compete for the buyer’s purse.  Andras Schiff’s transversal is considered definitive by the writers at Gramophone (although they seem, of late, to have switched allegiance to Angela Hewlitt’s recent release); for lovers of the idiosyncratic, there are the intriguing interpretations of Glenn Gould and Friedrich Gulda; for authenticists, who insist on the harpsichord for this material, the austere recording Gustav Leonhardt is often preferred.  Wanda Landowska has left an amazing account on the Pleyel harpsichord as has, from a completely different sensibility, Rosalyn Tureck on piano.  There are tantalizing fragments from Wilhelm Kempff and Heinrich Neuhaus (although the latter may have recorded, at some point, the entire cycle).  My personal favorite is the reading by Scriabin’s student, Samuel Feinberg, recorded in 1959 and released a few years ago on Russian Disc (RC CD 15 013).

Bernard Roberts’s recording certainly belongs in this company and he succeeds in giving a slightly different, although no less musical account, than the performers mentioned above.  The preludes dance and the fugues soar.  Tempi are, for the most part, steady without being mechanical.  The pedalling is restrained, but the piano’s innate sonorities are exploited – Roberts never tries to imitate a harpsichord.  The nicest thing about this account is the naturalness of the fugues.  They flow without the rhythmic stiffness that can plague other performances.

I cannot close without mentioning the liner notes written by Wilfrid Mellers which are splendid, amongst the best of this genre I have ever read.

Tony Gualtieri
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