About halfway through GEB I decided that I should give this Bach stuff a day in court. I’ve long liked what I’ve known, but known relatively little. Fairly arbitrarily I had pre-decided to start with The Well-Tempered Clavier, which comprises two sets of 24 preludes and fugues (a pair of 24 pairs!). But covetousness always brings more pain: now you have to decide which recording to get. Wanting only a complete set and drawing on the expertise of some friends and the Internet, I came up with this shortlist (all played on the piano, due to no special prejudice):
- Edwin Fischer 1933-1936
Fischer is an extremely big, maybe the biggest, name in the appropriate Germanic tradition. I think this is the most famous of all the recordings, and something of a default. It has authority, but I worried that it’s too old – perhaps by now the consensus on Bach recordings is more settled. Also, I suspect that the standard of top musicianship has been steadily rising.
- Glenn Gould 1963-1965 for Book 1, 1968, 1970 and 1971 for Book 2
Gould is, of course, the big eccentric celebrity, by far the most intriguing as a person and, according to many, as a musician. He certainly cared as much about Bach as anyone, going so far as to revive his music in the Soviet Union on then-unusual tours there, and giving his all to make perfect recordings. But perfect by his own standards: notorious for both a large number of takes and singing along as he played, the recordings have passionate haters as well as lovers. Ultimately I deemed Gould insufficiently neutral, and neutrality is what my heart yearns for.
- Angela Hewitt 1997-1999
Hewitt is probably by consensus the greatest living Bach performer. This recording is currently the most popular choice on eg. Amazon, and according to Wikipedia “the set has often been recommended as a ‘reference’ version”. I can’t find any complaints about it, and Hewitt is certainly the real deal: in 2007-2008 she undertook a six-continent world tour performing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier each concert.
Angela Hewitt 2008
The recordings I’ve mentioned so far took a long time to complete, but after the aforementioned world tour, Hewitt decided to re-record the whole thing in a week and a day in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin. She said that after playing the work so many times on tour and becoming more and more acquainted with a new custom-build piano, she felt that she had a new, refined vision for the recording. Some people who have heard it prefer it, saying that it has a lighter, clearer tone. But I decided for now that I don’t want new, refined visions, thank you very much (as intriguing as it sounds). For neutrality!
I went with choice 3, fairly confident that I’d be completely unable to tell the difference between any of them.