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CD Review

Great Pianists of the 20th Century

Volume 94 - Rosalyn Tureck II

Johann Sebastian Bach

From the Klavierübung
  • "Goldberg" Variations (mono)
  • French Overture (Partita) in B minor
  • Italian Concerto in F Major
  • Four Duets (from Klavierübung III)
Rosalyn Tureck, piano
Philips 456979 2CDs 78:38 + 77:03
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Great Bach. Great Bach playing.

Tureck's second installment in the Philips "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series (vol. 94) brings back some rare important recordings from the Fifties and from the obscurity of the American Decca label, on which they first appeared in the United States. The major work is, of course, the Goldbergs, and for that reason I'll save it for last.

I'd be willing to bet that most haven't heard the Four Duets. Bach tacked them on to a set of organ pieces in the third volume of his Klavierübung (roughly speaking, "keyboard exercise"). Tureck is one of the only pianists I know to have recorded these works. "Duet" refers not to two instruments, but to two lines of music, as Tureck herself once pointed out, "the barest minimum… for contrapuntal composition." One normally associates two-part writing with simplicity, perhaps even naïveté, but Bach confounds expectations. Though beautiful, these are highly abstract works – in a sense, skeletons of counterpoint, marvels of rhythmic variety and independence, the lines never marching in lock-step. It's as if the halves of two conversations in different parts of town joined in some cosmic ear with perfect sense. One also notes how Bach suggests again and again, particularly in the a-minor duet (no. 4), complex harmonies or, in all four duets, tonal centers of positively Schoenbergian instability, all with just two voices. All of Tureck's virtues, particularly her command of independent phrasing of the two lines, show up here, but these works don't particularly demand them. Bach builds the independence into the works themselves – restricting the range of each line and differentiating rhythms.

The so-called French Overture in reality is a partita, although one standing apart from the usual set of six. For one thing, to me it sounds more elaborate than the others and represents a more cosmopolitan point of view. But no cosmopolis lives up to the sophistication of this suite. It comes off a bit like Bach's (or Wallace Stevens's) dream of Paris: neither one of them ever got there, so the reality never had the chance to disappoint the ideal. Bach writes in b-minor, a key he often reserves for the tragic. This comes across in spades in the "Courante," which races along like storm clouds, and in the opening "Ouverture," where a somber and stately double-dotted intro releases into an allegro which flies along until (in Tureck's performance) it collapses all at once into the opening music. If you ever doubt Tureck's mastery of the keyboard, listen to the final note of this movement, which strikes at the last possible second from the decay of the previous note to remain continuous in the line and at exactly the right dynamic so that it doesn't distort the phrase. The last movement – "Echo" – lives up to its name: a study in sharp dynamic contrasts of loud and soft. Curiously, this is the one solo keyboard piece of Bach's I've heard that really demands a harpsichord. Not even Tureck's superb volume control convinces me otherwise. The piano can provide subtle gradations of volume, but the piece doesn't call for that. "Echo" seems written for a two-manual harpsichord with at least something like a lute stop. It's not just the sharp contrast of volume one needs to hear, but the sharp contrast of timbre provided by the muffling effect of the lute stop. If Tureck can't make a case for the piano, nobody can.

Opposed to the relative obscurity of the above pieces, the Italian Concerto, beloved by pianists and audiences alike, deserves all of its popularity. Recordings include those by Bunin, De Larrocha, Richter, Kipnis, Gould, Landowska, Marlowe, Schnabel, and a slew of others. In his volume on chamber music, Tovey refers to the second movement probably more often than any other keyboard work by Bach. Tureck disappoints, but only in comparison to her own high standard. Basically, I object to her not recognizing the fun of the work. She wears a very earnest face here. The first movement moves to a too-stately tread, although the 16th-note runs are light enough. On the other hand, she brings back treasures from the deep in the second movement, more than any other performer I've heard. Her main strategy is to build a long crescendo until just before the end when she falls back, and with the final bit she repeats that same arch in little. The crescendo is so subtle and comes from such a soft beginning you only realize it in retrospect, once you've reached loud, close to the end. The finale, quite fine, nevertheless misses that impetuous joy that marks so many other performances.

It's worth asking, I think, what exactly provides the basis for the Goldberg Variations. Obviously, Bach constructs variations on the opening little sarabande – but neither on the melody nor on the rhythm (except in one variation for each). The variation idea is rather abstract – the sarabande's bass line or the harmony that bass line implies. From this he generates canons, overtures, duets, fugues, 3-part sinfonias, and even the famous quodlibet, in which several tunes sound simultaneously. Tovey unhesitatingly called it the greatest variation set, along with the Beethoven Diabellis. Fine by me. I spent a year studying the Goldbergs, and while I learned a lot, felt as if it would take me a lifetime at least to feel as if I understood them even adequately.

The great esteem for the Goldbergs wasn't always thus, at least among the general public. Busoni thought them unplayable as written and consequently produced his own edition, with wholesale rewriting and paraphrases. Impresarios considered them too much and too abstruse for an audience to sit through in an evening. And yet, if Bach ever conceived a work to be played entire, the Goldbergs are it, with structural bindings all over the joint. Every third variation is a canon on an increasing interval, for example. That is, the third variation is a canon at the unison, the sixth at the second, the ninth on the third, and so on. A little subsidiary phrase in the fifteenth variation (naturally, a canon at the fifth) closing the first half shows up as one of the themes of the quodlibet, the final variation. These things have a cumulative effect, a reach over the entire span of the work. Landowska, Tureck, Gould, and the long-playing record, I believe, did much to bring this monument to public attention.

I count as one of my greatest concert experiences hearing Tureck in a packed London hall during the early Seventies give the complete Goldbergs twice in one evening – first half on harpsichord, second on piano – stunning both times. So much for the audience's refusal to sit through such a work. Of the recordings I've heard, I like Gould's 1955, Landowska's RCA, and Tureck's Fifties recordings the best, and – thanks to American Decca's fall into oblivion – I heard Tureck last. In general, I would characterize Gould as nervous and brisk and Landowska as one long joyous surprise. Tureck has recorded the variations at least five times that I know of. Only the 1979 harpsichord recording on CBS disappointed me – too stolid. Here, Tureck is rigorously architectural and breathtakingly lyrical, both qualities in evidence in the very first variation, where out of two-part writing she miraculously finds a third part (one, by the way, which Tovey's analysis misses). The third variation, the canon at the unison, is notoriously difficult to play so that one actually hears the canon. With Tureck, you needn't worry.

Tureck's account of each variation deserves a paragraph in itself – an analysis of the variation's structure and then of how Tureck brings it out. To spare myself the hard work, I'll simply mention highlights here and there. In the fourth variation, for example, Bach plays with the contrapuntal confrontation of an idea right-side up and up-side down – all very clear with Tureck. In the eighth variation, Bach does the same thing, but with two different ideas. Furthermore, because of the fact that one idea goes up and the other down (while their inversions go down and up), lines that start far apart sometimes come very close together, and indeed one hears the lines cross. Bach indicates a two-keyboard harpsichord, and you can well believe him. The pianist, however, must accomplish this through phrasing and "touch." With Tureck, you get the sensation that your ears cross as well at those points, with the lines. In the tenth variation, Tureck springs Bach's marvelous surprise that the simple little sarabande from Anna Magdalena's book can actually become a fugal subject (a "fughetta" in four parts, in fact), its second four bars a fifth higher than its first four, thus providing the "proper" entries. Tureck's fancy comes to the fore in variation 13 – a wonderfully delicate, syncopated, florid melody, that ends in a sigh. I should mention that Bach left very few indications of how his music should go – one reason why interpretations vary so much. I feel the delicacy and wit of this account belongs as much to Tureck as to Bach. The sixteenth variation – a famous tour-de-force – is a "French overture" – that is, a grand introduction of slow dotted rhythms, followed by a fugal allegro. It's simultaneously as strict a variation as any in the set and an incredible shaping of the fundamental bass line. Tureck plays with verve, bringing up the curtain on the second half of the set and reinvigorating our energy for the rest of the play.

By now, you should get the idea that this is one great set, and I leave you to discover the rest of it on your own. I haven't emphasized, however, that Tureck always gives you music, rather than just notes or just teaching points. The range and complexity of mood she evokes from this music is stunning. It is as much her mood as Bach's, again because Bach doesn't indicate the emotional character (or even the tempi) of each section. An interpretation this good springs from a great deal of period knowledge, good old-fashioned taste, and complex personality – one that can appreciate Bach's emotional complexity. The sound is monaural, but you get all the separation you need from Tureck's keyboard mastery itself. Sound is clean.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz