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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870-893

Jeffrey Middleton, piano
Recorded One Soul Studios, New York City, 2004
One Soul Recordings PLR2004.07.18 2CDs: 70:40 + 69:18

Summary: Comfortable performances, but not very comforting

In terms of the field of competition, this set of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 reminds me of a recent recording I reviewed of the Coull Quartet playing Mozart string quartets. Taken in isolation, both are highly enjoyable, but comparisons with other versions on the market clearly reveal a less compelling interpretive stance.

We are blessed with an abundance of riches of piano recordings of the WTC that excellently reveal this body of music as one of the towering artistic achievements of Western Civilization: Richter, Feinberg, Martins, Gould, Tureck, Gulda, Koroliov, Aldwell, Schiff, Schepkin, Fischer, etc.

Unfortunately, Middleton is a well below the insights offered by these pianists.

Before describing Middleton's performance style, I should say a few words about the man and the One Soul Recordings label. Mr. Middleton graduated from The Juilliard School and earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Yale School of Music. He has been on the faculties of the School of American Ballet, The Harlem School of the Arts, and the New Jersey City University. As a professional performer, Middleton has toured extensively in the United States, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as a soloist, chamber musician, and vocal accompanist. Other recordings include the music of Joseph Fennimore and George Walker.

One Soul Recordings is a recording studio in New York City that offers its recording and production facilities to musicians. The company's website has recordings for sale, and that's how I acquired Middleton's WTC recordings after reading reviews in Fanfare and American Record Guide. For what it's worth, the Fanfare reviewer had a positive reaction to the performances, although the review in the American Record Guide was cool to the interpretations.

Middleton's approach to Bach is relatively straight-forward with no detours allowed. His tempos are on the quick side, contours are rounded, the pedals are used lightly, and changes in tempo and dynamics are minimal. He does a fine job with the pieces possessing dotted rhythms, and I think it fair to say that the interpretations are user-friendly and benign.

When comparing Middleton's performances to the top versions of the WTC, various deficiencies become obvious. First, emotional depth is largely avoided as Middleton has no interest in getting "down and dirty"; put another way, Bach's bleakest environments are given a light brushing.

This is most damaging in presenting the contrast between Bach's dark side and his glorious rays of light. Second, the straight-ahead style Middleton employs involves minimal nuance and eventually leads to a loss of interest. This could have been offset by great tension and excitement, but Middleton's level of tension is not strong and his drive can be intermittent. Third, although his lyricism is admirable, it definitely pales next to Tureck, Schepkin, and Schiff. The sonics are clear as a bell, but I can't say that Middleton uses the soundstage to explore the wonderful and complex architecture; for this feature, Gould and Gulda are light-years ahead of Middleton.

What really kills this release is the price tag – $43 plus shipping and handling. That makes this set one of the most expensive WTC Book II's on the market. Obviously, the combination of high price and lack of compelling performances is a losing proposition to the potential buyer.

Although the packaging is quite handsome and similar to a DVD release, it's the content that counts.

Don's Conclusions: Thoroughly professional and unmannered performances are not good enough for Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. It's greatness is revealed in its architecture, emotional breadth, and depth of expression.

At best, Middleton is only moderately successful in these crucial areas.

Given the steep price tag and fierce competition, I cannot recommend acquisition of this exceptionally packaged product.

Copyright © 2006, Don Satz