The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book I, BWV846-869
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Recorded September 2008 & February 2009 in Herkulessaal, Munich
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: May 2010
CD No: DG 477 8078 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes
Maurizio Pollini was born in Milan in 1942 and studied with – and revered – his compatriot, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. In the 1960s and 1970s he made some celebrated recordings, amongst which Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka and Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy stand out as two of the greatest piano recordings ever made. However, like Michelangeli, Pollini’s approach to music-making often tips over into glacial detachment and it is difficult to see him as anything other than an example of the artist who occasionally touches, rather than consistently achieves, greatness.
Pollini’s relationship with Bach goes back some way and during the composer’s tri-centennial year (1985) he performed the complete Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in concerts. Certainly there is a sense of inexorable logical progression behind every bar of the composer’s instrumental music, which should play to Pollini’s strengths. But there is also immense spirituality and humanity – qualities that have rarely been to the fore in his music-making. In assessing Pollini’s response to this sublime music, I have chosen Sviatoslav Richter for comparison, on vinyl, but which is also available on RCA CDs.
First of all though, there has to be a word of warning about the sound. On these discs the piano is an amorphous mass, which has no space around it; there is no sense of the hall’s acoustic, the bass has a sense of false reverberation, the balance is too forward and the overall effect is tiring (but read below). Rather distractingly, Pollini also fancies himself as a karaoke singer and, like most of that ilk, is seriously out-of-tune.
Bach left virtually no tempo, dynamic or expressive markings, and while virtuoso pianists don’t really need much encouragement in these areas, this has led to some to some major discrepancies in timings and approach over the years. But Pollini and Richter choose broadly similar tempos. This is not like comparing Tureck (live) with Gould! Fortunately neither artist distorts Bach’s audacious transparency of line, texture and thought with a surfeit of unnecessary decoration.
The opening C major Prelude is simply a series of arpeggios with sparse bass notes, which somehow form a profoundly beautiful cantabile melody. Pollini is slow and uses a lot of sustaining pedal, and the gradual downward progression of the music is superbly realised. Richter, at a similar tempo, is rather more impressionistic and quieter. Richter commences the Fugue as though it is an extension of the Prelude. The touch and rubato makes the tempo appear more relaxed than it is and there is a sense of unforced authority behind every note. Pollini is faster and as the piece progresses his tone becomes quite ugly and hard. At the beginning of the up-tempo C minor Prelude, Richter is fast and yet relaxes beautifully for the codetta. By comparison Pollini is too loud and forceful, the finger-work less defined and there is too much sustaining pedal. In the Fugue Pollini is rather rigid and square, the three voices have little individual character and there is a similar problem in the C sharp Fugue. The inexorable logic that all great Bach-playing must exhibit isn’t there. In Richter hands everything is in place – there is power and control, everything flows and there is a simple rightness to the phrasing.
In the D major Prelude and Fugue, Pollini is very stiff, whereas Richter dances and brings a stately grandeur to the Fugue. In Richter’s hands there is a quiet sense of enigmatic questioning in the D minor pieces, which makes Pollini sound far too forceful and the trills are unconvincing. What is missing is that sense of unforced progression and humanity. In the E flat Prelude these qualities are briefly captured, but then everything becomes too loud, with unsubtle tempo changes. Turn to Richter and you hear the music of the spheres, and exactly the same happens in the E flat minor – the music lives and breathes in a way seemingly beyond Pollini’s understanding. Furthermore, as previously noted, Pollini consistently over-uses the sustaining pedal, his touch is too forceful (indeed these performances become tiring to listen to and not all of this is down to the sound), and he remains obstinately earthbound.
In fairness some of the later pieces are better, but nowhere does Pollini challenge Richter, or for that matter, in their totally different ways, Edwin Fischer, Gieseking, Gould or Nikolayeva, to name but a few.