Notes and Editorial Reviews
“It’s rare to hear such musical integrity and extraordinary pianism.”—New York Times
The Well-Tempered Clavier,
Maurizio Pollini (pn)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 001363702 (2 CDs: 110:27)
Despite the enjoyment to be had from pianists who specialize in this area, it is always an occasion when one of the “greats” releases a Bach
recording, be it Kempff, Argerich, Brendel, Perahia, Barenboim, or others in the pantheon. They invariably bring something of their own musical world to bear on the interpretation. Maurizio Pollini’s recording of the 24 preludes and fugues is no exception.
He has played several of these pieces in concert programs over the years, but has re-studied the complete set for this recording, his first ever of Bach’s music. All the usual pluses of Pollini’s pianism are in evidence: infallible technique, great strength when required, and a lack of fussiness over detail at the expense of the whole. In matters of decoration and ornamentation, he errs on the side of caution—definitely my preference on the piano—occasionally trilling through a long note (F?-Major and G-Minor Preludes) but leaving final cadences alone. Unlike Angela Hewitt in her recent second recording, he does not pull tempos around, but keeps them strict, almost robotic in some cases (D-Major and A?-Major Preludes).
Pollini’s textures are those you would expect to hear in his recordings of later composers. The hymn-like purity of the E?-Major Fugue displays a burnished, fulsome tone that would suit a Schubert sonata, the relentless forte of the C-Minor Prelude would be devastating in a Beethoven scherzo, while the pearly tones of the E-Major Prelude bring his distinguished Chopin playing to mind. When fugal textures thicken, Pollini does not emphasize any one voice over the others but allows the texture to expand, often with Brahmsian grandeur. He rarely varies the dynamic level once it is set, an exception being his shading of the theme in the A?-Major Fugue. As you might imagine, in his hands, the great Fugue in B? Minor is as solemn and concentrated as any late Beethoven adagio.
If there is a drawback, it is that Pollini’s approach does not quite tell the whole story. The blurb describes this performance as “a summit meeting of two masters,” and it is true, there is something monumental about the whole enterprise: the WTC as the pinnacle of Western art, Pollini as the high priest in an act of devotion. His reading leaves no room whatsoever for mere human quirks: no capriciousness, no lightness of touch, nothing personal—as the saying goes. Good humor was a part of Bach’s humanity, but it is overshadowed by Pollini’s rigidity (even in his relatively unemphatic D?-Major Prelude). His statements of contrapuntal themes (C-Minor Fugue and several others) can be hammered out with all the force of a public announcement on a loudspeaker, and in the name of Art he never lets up. Another minus, which in this case does not worry me unduly, is the pianist’s tendency to hum along in a tuneless vocal
. I thought all that was behind us. (Funny, I don’t recall him doing it in the Bartók Second Concerto.)
The piano is recorded at a slight distance that suits the amplitude of Pollini’s tone. Working from promotional pressings, I have no idea what the booklet notes are like, but I presume they are up to DG’s usual standard. This set is an event in more ways than one. As I said above, every traversal of this music by one of the masters sheds a unique and fascinating light on it. Recommended to all who are serious about Bach.
After writing the above, I returned to Angela Hewitt’s recent Hyperion recording to supply something of an antidote to Pollini. I found her playing so full of felicitous touches that I cannot believe I was quite so dismissive of the set in
33:1. (Well, I did say she would take some getting used to!) Hewitt is idiosyncratic, but after Pollini the effect was like emerging from a cathedral into the morning sunlight.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
During the 1980s I heard Maurizio Pollini perform Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book I live in concert. At the time his interpretations seemed straightforward, direct, and highly focused, never extreme regarding tempo choices, sometimes reserved, rarely humorous, ornamentally conservative, and not without moments of vehement dynamism and limpid sensitivity. At long last, Pollini has brought the "48" to the recording studio, having, by his own account, restudied and rethought the scores.
Still, my 2009 impressions largely remain the same as a quarter-century ago. The pianist eschews tempo modification as much as possible and will have none of the agogic pauses or marked contrasts between legato and detached articulation characterizing Angela Hewitt's 2008 Hyperion remakes. Unlike Bach players who underline fugal subject entrances and leave the rest of the counterpoint to play itself, Pollini never allows a line's melodic trajectory to slacken. You clearly hear this in the C minor, C-sharp major, D-sharp minor, F-sharp major, G minor, B minor, and the difficult-to-voice A minor fugues, and in slow-moving preludes like the E-flat minor and B-flat minor, where the accompanying chords' linear moving parts make themselves felt without artificial highlighting.
The aforementioned vehemence sometimes yields heavy and even blurred textures, as in the G major and C minor preludes (the latter contains a tiny wrong note that may be unique among Pollini's studio efforts!). At the same time, the G minor prelude's sonorous half-tints and gorgeously tapered trills alone defy any notion of Pollini as a cold pianist. And if the C major prelude's subtle gradations of touch and voicing don't register upon first hearing, they certainly will by the second or third time. In sum, there's no disputing the integrity and stature of Pollini's Bach, although, among contemporaneous editions, Koroliov and Ashkenazy take top honors for crispness and joy.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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