I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

The Well-Tempered Clavier - Kimiko Ishizaka

After her Goldberg recording, Ms. Ishizaka has now released the first book to Bach’s Wohltempierte Clavier, BWV 846-869. Released on the Navona Records label, it is available via iTunes digitally, online for purchase as CDs, or through welltemperedclavier.org in a high-quality digital download format. While they are asking for money for this recording, there continues to be an “openness” about this recording, which, I have to say, I admire.

The digital release I purchased in Apple Lossless format also came with PDF sheet music arranged for the project, too, which was a very nice bonus. Hint, Hint, big labels.

Ms. Ishizaka chose in this recording to use a modern piano, but to eschew the use of the pedal. Reminds us somewhat of András Schiff, no? He’s likely a close companion for comparing their technique and approach to the first 24 of the 48.

In the case of the A minor prelude, BWV 865, Schiff is far fleeter and virtuosic in his approach. Their fugues are taken at about the same tempo, but their phrasing is very different. I might say in this example, they’re speaking another dialect. In terms of the recorded sound quality, the Schiff recording captures more of the room, the Ishizaka recording is closer and ultimately drier, which I think I prefer.

The prelude and fugue pair in B minor, BWV 869, is one of my favorite couplets in the entire 48,, and Ishizaka takes the prelude at a fast pace. She also ignores the repeat. Schiff is slower in the prelude, but does take the repeats. He also adopts a little phrase pattern (long-long-short) in the prelude which again highlights the differences these do adopt for phrasing. (I, of course, prefer this prelude very slow, ala Gulda, and believe while Schiff’s phrasing is interesting, is ultimately a curiosity, and prefer Ishizaka’s phrasing, despite her tempo choice.)

For the B minor fugue, Ishizaka takes a more severe tempo, and again, I prefer her phrasing. She also omits a few “traditional” trills. This is a profound piece of music, and I appreciate her taking her time. Like Gulda, she increases the volume later in the fugue, but not to the same dramatic effect as Gulda, who treats both the prelude and the fugue as giant crescendos.

In the C major fugue, BWV 846, the two players again adopt similar tempi, but Ishikaza plays with more separation between notes, not choosing, as Schiff does, to create short-long phrase pairs. In the C-sharp minor pair, BWV 849, Ms. Ishikaza continues to play cleanly and opts for maximum transparency in her reading. I would have enjoyed a slightly faster tempo. Her fugue adopts a tempo I find more fitting, again, with a detached articulation, enough space around the notes to make the playing all the more difficult to pull off with the consistency required, but offering the listener the opportunity to clearly hear the attack of each note. With all the notes provided by Bach here, and at the chosen tempo, it’s no small feat what she accomplishes.

Schiff’s reading in BWV 849 too is slow, but because he’s breaking down Bach into phrase groups more than Ishikaza does, it kind of works to his advantage. For the fugue, however, there is more energy in Ms. Ishikaza’s reading, which I find musically more satisfying.

I don’t mean to belabor the point of comparing one reading to another; it’s good news, for one, that there are, in fact, discernible differences, right? I have no doubt each performer has their rationale for their decisions, if for nothing else, “I like it this way.” For us, as listeners, we have the ability to pick and choose from those performances that make the most sense to us, in terms of the interpretive preferences of tempo, articulation, style, and dynamics.

Without looking up what I wrote about Schiff, I can say that today, visited again, I find it a solid recording that ultimately never pushes us or the music too far; it’s gentle without being bland. Ishikaza’s newer recording might be characterized the same way, but I’ve found that her style and the way her piano was recorded, are preferable to me. I won’t go as far and say this is the best recording you’ll find, but it’s been carefully considered, researched, and offers for me just as much to enjoy as the recordings you may find from more well-known names. Ms. Ishikaza definitely has something to say, and is more overt in this reading of Bach than her last in conveying that message. That message may not be as overt and radical as the statements made by my personal favorite, Frederich Gulda or that by Glenn Gould, but it’s conveyed pretty consistently across the 24 preludes and fugues with what I guess is reverence, not restraint.

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