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To my mind, Bach's WTC has got to be one of the most difficult works to record in the entire piano repertoire. These 48 preludes and fugues contain some of the most profound utterances in human history, yet are all too often delegated out as teaching pieces for practicing purposes. In the hands of many pianists, including so-called Bach experts such as Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt, Bach's 48 becomes boring and lifeless, and that's not even starting on harpsichord versions featuring third-rate musicians making a career out of a niche market with ridiculous claims of authenticity rather than actual musical expression.
But in Edwin Fischer's hands, these works are anything but boring. It's clear that Fischer saw the WTC as a monument of humanity and played them that way, with full Romantic expression, deeply expressive voicings, and perfect use of the sustain pedal. Although he doesn't have the raw technical ability and contrapuntal clarity of Richter or Gould, his Bach touches me the most. It's a little difficult to explain, but in my opinion his Bach is the most spiritual on record. Fugues like the C-sharp minor and D major from Book 1 become overwhelming in their humanity. To my mind, Fischer's WTC shares many traits similar to that Schnabel's recording of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Both were the first complete recordings of the Old and New Testament of piano music. Neither artist had perfect technique. And both artists possessed profound understanding of their music that has yet to be surpassed.
A few other miscellaneous notes. Yes, Fischer doubled bass lines occasionally. (As a pianist born in the 19th century, he came from a performing tradition that was far less obsessed with the score as we are today.) No, it doesn't ruin the music. On the contrary, the bass octaves are sparingly used and well thought out such that they always enhance the dramatic aspect of the music.
Lastly, a word on the EMI transfer on this recording. The sound is not bad, and the hiss has been pretty much completely reduced, but I can't help but feel that there must be better transfers around, especially considering EMI's reputation for ruining their historical recordings. I haven't heard the Naxos transfer, but many say the Naxos transfer is a lot worse than their usual quality work. What I really want to hear is Seth Winner's transfer on Pearl, which is probably excellent (judging from his work on Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas), but it's out of print and I can't bring myself to shell down ~$300 just to get it used from some shark on Amazon. If anyone has heard some of these transfers, I'd welcome your input.
Of course, any fan of the 48 will need more than one set. Here are my other recommendations in order:
1. Sviatoslav Richter, Innsbruck 1973 (live), Moscow 1969 (Book I only, live), Salzburg (studio). Incredible technique and counterpoint, with extremely virtuosic and intense fast fugues, as well as slow fugues with rapt concentration and poetry. The live Innsbruck recording represents him at his best, but is very difficult to find and is overfiltered sonically, which cuts out a large part of Richter's glorious tone. The 1969 Moscow recording is nearly as good artistically, has the best sound but contains only book 1. Finally, the studio recording, while isn't as good as the live versions, also has its great moments but also features overly processed acoustics and, in some tracks, a pitch that's almost a semitone sharp.
2. Samuel Feinberg. This is some of the most Romantic Bach playing you will ever hear and it works wonders in the slow fugues. In particular the E-flat minor and F minor from book 1 are just outstanding. It is very imaginative and delightfully musical to hear, but the frequent tempo and dynamic changes are sometimes a little annoying in the fast fugues.
3. Glenn Gould. Truth be told, I don't listen to this recording often because Gould's playing in a lot of the fugues is much too casual for my taste. His WTC isn't nearly as spiritual as that of Richter, Fischer, or Feinberg, but features very exciting playing and overwhelmingly clear counterpoint. It's a real pity that he couldn't bring the same depth that one hears in his 1981 Goldbergs to the WTC though. The 1981 Goldbergs is my absolute favorite Bach performance.
4. Evgeni Koroliov. I got these recordings after seeing ClassicsToday give them a 10/10, but in truth they are rather overrated. The playing is good but it isn't on the level of the others I mentioned. The sound quality is absolutely superb though.