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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Well-Tempered Clavier

Book I, BWV 846-869
Mieczysław Horszowski, piano
Vanguard Classics ATM-CD-1961 ADD 2CDs: 58:55, 56:22
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Incredibly, these performances were recorded in 1978 when the pianist, born in 1892, was in his mid-eighties. (Furthermore, this was far from being Horszowski's "last hurrah" in the recording studios, as he made several recordings for Nonesuch Records in the 1980s.) Perhaps one thinks of Bach's WTC as music well-suited for older (and presumably wiser) pianists… music to which they can apply a lifetime of experience and insight. Nevertheless, it takes the sort of stamina one associates with younger pianists to perform this repertoire, which can be both physically and emotionally exhausting.

One senses that Horszowski saw this as an opportunity to leave behind a lasting document of his final thoughts concerning these works… a recording that would have validity even as tastes and performance styles changed. As such, this set might be particularly valuable for those who are studying the WTC, either as performers or scholars. In terms of technique, Horszowski still has at his disposal all that Bach requires of him. The playing is smooth but not glib, and the all-important counterpoint is cleanly realized. In fact, Horszowski's apparent preference for staccato or détaché articulation in the fugues gets a little monotonous at times. Tempos are consistently "safe," and a minimum of embellishments are added.

My preference, however, is for more subjective, more overtly expressive interpretations than these. Horszowski is not unemotional, but there are many pianists who have taken more interpretive chances here than he does, and still been faithful to Bach's probable intentions. Rosalyn Tureck is the first – but not the only – pianist to come to mind. I hear more tenderness, pathos, humor, and geniality in this music than Horszowski chooses to put forward. Still, his readings are classics, in their own right, and this set would make a nice complement to the wilder efforts of Glenn Gould, for example, so I am glad that it has been reissued. The engineering is unspectacular but honest. Extensive booklet notes by Dr. Joseph Braunstein concerning each and every prelude and fugue add value to the package.

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle