Recorded 27-30 December 2003 at Teldec Studio, Berlin
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61553-2 (2 CDs) Duration: 2 hours 5 minutes Reviewed: September 2004
Reviewed by Rob Pennock
Daniel Barenboim has chosen to devote most of his life to conducting as opposed to playing the piano. This has always seemed to me to be a mistake. Barenboims HMV recordings of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart signalled that here was an exceptional pianist with the potential for true greatness. Regrettably his conducting career has not approached this level of achievement. A further downside has been that when he does occasionally gives piano recitals or makes piano recordings, there are serious questions about his technique and interpretative license.
For these reasons I approached Barenboims Bach release with some doubts. Bachs instrumental works contain some of the greatest music ever written and pose considerable interpretative and technical challenges. The First Book of the Well Tempered Clavier was written for the clavichord around 1722 in response to the creation of a new universal tuning system using equal temperament. In the 20th-century, odd pieces were usually played on a concert grand as encores or in small groups. However in 1934 Edwin Fischer made a complete recording of both books and in the 1950s Gieseking and Tureck made celebrated recordings. As the harpsichord and other early keyboard instruments became more popular, the number of complete surveys grew as did the stylistic approaches! Now the catalogue has numerous complete recordings on a variety of instruments. Needless to say the advent of period performance has led to considerable discussion about issues such as ornamentation and whether in fact equal temperament should be used.
However these issues tend to be of more concern to players of early keyboard instruments rather than pianists. A concert grand that has been partially de-tuned is not a viable listening option and pianists tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to matters such as decoration. In this review I have limited my comparisons to piano performances. I would not want to be without Ralph Kirkpatrick on the clavichord or Kenneth Gilbert on the harpsichord. But in fairness to Barenboim a like-for-like comparison is called for.
However if a piano is used the performer has to make some decisions about how far they will go in utilising the resources of the instrument. They have to decide how they will approach rubato, dynamics, touch and pedalling. Sometimes this has led to attempts to emulate the sound of a clavichord or harpsichord, or to turn the pieces into Rachmaninov. For me neither approach works, you cant use a piano and then ignore most of its capabilities, it is pointless, and the opposite extreme, using vast amounts of pedalling and rubato, completely destroys the essence of the music. To add to the problems facing all artists who essay this sublime music, there are virtually no tempo markings in any one of the 24 pieces. Over the years this has led to some major tempo variations in individual movements and in the work as a whole. Turecks 1953 performance is very slow in virtually every movement. Gieseking, recorded only three years earlier, is much faster. Richter and András Schiff fall somewhere in between but sometimes use very extreme tempo variations and rhythmic and dynamic pointing and shading.
So how does Barenboim resolve these issues and how does he compare with those mentioned above? I have chosen Gieseking (1950, EMI) and Nikolayeva (1984, MK) for direct comparison, as they represent two very different but equally compelling ways of approaching this music, 24 preludes and fugues. The famous opening C major Prelude is very short and must have had more words per second written about it than any other piece of music ever written! But how every performer takes this and the following Fugue can tell the listener a great deal about the approach to the whole work. Barenboim uses a very soft touch with tiny dynamic nuances. In the Fugue he starts very lightly with a measured tread and then moves forward carefully, his right-hand has an almost romantic glow to it due to the use of the sustaining pedal and the recording quality. Nikolayeva is slightly slower in both pieces but imbues the Prelude with a quiet strength, resignation and spirituality, which Barenboim misses. Her tone also glows but because she uses less sustaining pedal the sound never becomes hazy. The Fugue has greater clarity and, at a very similar tempo, much more impetus. She also sounds the voices with greater dynamic and tonal nuances. Gieseking by comparison is very fast; his Prelude has great strength and spirituality but gains its power from an impressive sense of forward movement. The Fugue is very strict where he uses minimal pedalling and a very emphatic right-hand.
In the fifth Prelude and Fugue, in the key of D, the dance-like prelude is very untidy in Barenboims hands and lacks rhythmic definition. In the fugue the left-hand is more defined and there is a large range of tonal shading in the right-hand. Nikolayeva is slower but far more exact and buoyant in the Prelude. In the Fugue she uses a far greater dynamic range and makes the music sound more angular. Gieseking is again the fastest in both pieces, but what energy and joy the Prelude has. The fugue is once again strict and didactic but Gieseking conveys real power and continuity. In the number eight, in D sharp minor, Barenboims tempo in the Prelude is too slow and he comes dangerously close to making it sound like a Chopin Nocturne with his soft tone and excessive use of rubato and pedal. The start of the fugue is similarly lush and romantic and there is little sense of the music going anywhere. Nikolayeva is slightly faster and far more focused; there is no attempt to romanticise the music and she finds a quiet sense of spirituality, which evades Barenboim. Her Fugue is slow, but again her fingerwork is stronger and there is no sense of self-indulgence. Gieseking is faster, as you would now expect, but his Prelude has, like Nikolayeva, a sense of repose and gentle musing. From him, the Fugue is an andante not an adagio, and yet he conveys a real sense of dialogue between the voices.
It is quite clear only one third of the way through the work that Barenboims approach is essentially Romantic, with soft, blurred edges and a limited dynamic range. What also becomes apparent when you listen to the cycle as a whole or in extended chunks is that Barenboim lacks concentration and conviction. In particular, many of the fugues sound tired and aimless. There are also numerous instances of untidiness and slack rhythmic control. Nikolayeva and Gieseking, in their startlingly contrasted ways, present a more unified, controlled and yet dynamic vision of the music, as do Fischer, Richter and Schiff.
Barenboim is also let down by the recording. Balance is fine; unlike so many digital sources it is not in your face. But there is a false sense of reverberation in the piano and each of its notes. Clearly a lot of this is down to Barenboims excessive use of the pedal, but the sound glows in a way I have never heard in any acoustic or on any piano. There is also no sense of the venues acoustic signature. This softly glowing piano appears to be in mid-air, surrounded by nothing. Clearer, cleaner sound might have brought more life to these performances. And while I said that you can only compare pianists with pianists in this music, I would recommend that if you dont already have them, you listen to Gilbert and Kirkpatrick. You often wont believe you are listening to the same music that Barenboim is playing!
But if you like Bach lush and Romantic, you should investigate this performance.