Saturday, 13 February 2016

Gulda's Well Tempered Clavier

My Definitive 48: A Triumph of Musical Content over Musical Performance

A Review of Friedrich Gulda's recording of Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Clavier

It's been twelve years since I started exploring interpretations of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, beginning with Richter, then Gould, then some lacklustre version I won't do the honour of mentioning by name, then a harpsichord version of Book 1, then Edwin Fischer's, then Angela Hewitt's, then Andras Schiff's and lastly Pollini's. 

Only now has my search for the perfect 48 ended. I have found in Friedrich Gulda my definitive recording of these pieces. It pains me to think of the money and time I could have saved had I been made aware of this version sooner but fate wanted me take the long haul it seems.

When it comes to Bach, I value transparency of playing so that each line can be isolated in the mind and meditatively absorbed in the integrated whole of the perfect music that is is. I quite liked Gould's 48 for this reason but his bravado and loud playing - either taken too fast or too slow - have always alienated me somewhat and many of the preludes and fugues become deadened and boring through his over-interpretation; over-interpretation also mars Richter's version which also lacks a clear base line, preventing clear appreciation of all the voices of the fugues and of the counterpoint technique.

Friedrich Gulda's recording has in its favour an immediate, one might say intimate, non concert hall sound, the microphones having been placed directly above the strings. Adding to the transparency of the sound is Gulda's extra delicate playing, slow and soft at the same time, where base and treble are clearly audible, which force one to pay attention to each note, each phrasing, each development and come away mesmerised. This is the most sensitively played Bach for piano on the market. 

Gulda's tempoes are also the most convincing I've heard - for example his very slow playing of Prelude I/8 and the fast pace of Fugue II/18  - and I have never enjoyed listening to these pieces as much as now. It's like all these years I'd been drinking watered wine until two days ago when, having purchased this set,  I had my first sip of undiluted wine.

This set pleases me so much in its understated mastery that I cannot listen to it for too long out of fear of jinxing the spell of perfection it has me under. So long have I sought this exact interpretation, without even knowing it existed, that now I know that this has to be my favourite disc not only of classical music but of all musical genres - everything else can go to the dogs as far as this version of the 48 is concerned. 

It only half surprises me that Gramophone gave a poor review of this set because it is hard for me to understand how critics could overlook such perfection but then I am also aware that critics are no more clued up than I and in many cases are plain wrong.

Others may prefer more performance heavy versions of these Preludes and Fugues but for those seeking the intellectual and spiritual content of these works, Gulda's is the one to buy, at least in the opinion of this reviewer who has over a decade's worth of exploring interpretations of this work.

Five stars