Top Ear

Top Ear First Anniversary Special: The Surprise Reviews (Part I)

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Jeremy Lee writes

It’s quite embarrassing for me to admit this, but I’ve never been familiar at all with Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues that is the Well-Tempered Clavier–I don’t even own a recording (though I do understand my grave need for one).  But of course, Leonard being Leonard, I’ve been shown little mercy, being told to review this 3CD, 4-hour set of Bach I’ve never heard, which sort of adds insult to injury, given my recent towering workload.  And it’s early 1930s mono.  A self-professed monophobe, I approached this recording with great caution and flagging enthusiasm (not that I’ve ever been enthusiastic about it in the first place).

It turned out to be quite an enjoyable listen.  Let’s get the sonics out of the way first:  it’s by far the BEST mono piano recording I’ve ever heard.  (So it turns out that recording dates only tell half the story.)  Thanks to Andrew Walter’s masterful mastering, there’s plenty of air around the notes, the beautiful, golden piano tone is preserved, and there’s not even much background noise.  Of course, if you house a passionate hatred for background noise, you can go for Naxos’ transfer, which uses some kind of technology to do away with hiss altogether, but I wouldn’t recommend that as a) it’s not particularly cheap and b) the elimination of the hiss chucks out the baby with the bathwater, i.e. there goes that piano tone and spatial air.

Then there’s Fischer’s playing.  A quick comparison between Fischer’s pioneering complete recording and a modern recording, namely Angela Hewitt’s on Hyperion (the only recording I happen to have in my music library) shows Fischer to be the more poetic, colorful artist, painting with relaxed, completely natural, unforced brushstrokes.  He puts the music first at all times, and supports his music-making with a fervent, deep love of Bach’s music, and as such it just sounds warmer and more sincere.  In contrast Hewitt (probably in a bid to sound “different” than all the other recordings, many of them legendary (Gould, Richter, etc., and not least Fischer)) sounds a bit too fussy and self-conscious, even mechanical at times, as much as I respect her thoughtfulness in revealing detail and counterpoint.  Compare their Book I C sharp major preludes to hear what I mean:  with Fischer, it just sounds more linear, more melodically satisfying.  And of course, beautiful though Hewitt’s tone is, Fischer is on another level:  sporting that kind of “heaven-whisper” character in pianissimos and a warm, coaxing sonority, his tone reminds me of none other than Wilhelm Kempff.

So Fischer’s relaxed, lyrical musicality coupled with his glowing sonority allows the beauty of Bach’s writing to speak for itself.  But then there are detractors of Fischer’s art saying that he has no technique, and to that I say humbug.  In fact, the knackier pieces, such as Book I’s 5th and 21st prelude, or Book II’s 15th fugue, are tossed off with effortless virtuosity, and the occasional wrong note or smudged counterpoint do nothing to overshadow Fischer’s gorgeous musicianship.

There you have it then:  a great set of Bach’s 48, a great testament to a great pianist, and a great bargain as well.  Thank you for allowing me to waste your time.

[Note:  I almost forgot to mention that the first few batches of copies of the Masters edition of this album has had problems with the track-splitting, and the later the track, the more serious it becomes; because of this problem, the very last track (which is supposed to contain the entire 24th fugue of Book II) now only contains the last half of it:  the first half of it has ended up in the “prelude” track, and the first half of the 24th prelude can be found in the “23rd fugue” track, and so on.  When notified of this problem EMI responded that they had no plans to remedy it in future batches; nevertheless, listeners are advised to check if their recently-bought copies still contain this problem.]


  • Album name:  J.S. Bach:  The Well-Tempered Clavier
  • Performers:  Edwin Fischer (piano)
  • Label:  EMI Masters 50999 6 23074 2 0
  • Sonics:  Mono ADD
  • Total playing time:  237:48

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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