When I was more or less a youngster and already under the spell of Bach I found his seminal Well Tempered Clavier on used vinyl as performed by the renowned harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. The recordings were made somewhat early in the fidelity era and her harpsichord sounded a little like a sewing machine. Yet there it all was, the prelude and fugues for every key, taken with all the trills and ornaments, and realized in all its glory.
A little later my piano teacher suggested I listen to Glenn Gould's pianoforte version and I duly did. It was an amazing feat, a modern performance with velocity the order of the day, a very different experience but equally exciting.
Those two versions have been my mainstays for the work, as they generally have been for many listeners. And over the many years I have ever grown into the music, its genuine genius, the many moods and nuances of the little masterpieces working together.
Pianist Andras Schiff, known as a pianist's pianist, has done a new full version of both books which are available as an ECM New Series box (4-cds B0017198-02) and it brings a third major performance of the cycle to the world.
Andras Schiff captures the moods and many nuances of the work with the sensitivity of a master poet. He spells out the lines and counterlines with beauty and clarity. He brings dynamics into the picture as an integrated part of his conception of each prelude and fugue. The velocity is there as Schiff feels the need, but it is not a horse race. It's a brilliant, eminently balanced pianoforte interpretation that brings a consummate pianism to the work that in my experience is unparalleled. Each segment, each prelude and each fugue has a way about it in Schiff's hands that sounds almost inevitable, right, though it takes a performer of extraordinarily abilities to produce such a version.
The box set is just out. The ECM sound is outstanding, the interpretation a landmark in Bach for piano, and the music remains the open form of cosmic dimensions, complex yet direct, allowing the performer to put his or her imprint upon it and let the music live on eternally, eternally. There is room for hundreds, thousands of great interpretations and endless aways different experiences of its many incredible moments, by listeners from now until humankind packs it in for all in all.
We are fortunate to have this new Andras Schiff performance. I will have the good fortune I hope to re-experience it many times for the rest of my days. Brilliant!