Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier / Vladimir Feltsman

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BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier: Books I and II Vladimir Feltsman (pn) NIMBUS 2516 (4 CDs: 244:00)

One noteworthy aspect of our modern, evolving, and contentious arena of historical-performance practice is that the controversy over the suitability of the modern grand piano in the performance of Bach seems to have noticeably dissipated, perhaps for no other reason than the abundance of undeniably probing versions (live and on disc) by so many of our greatest performing artists. At this point, it seems churlish to invoke this prohibition in the face of Gould, Schiff, and countless others who have brought the endless pleasures of the master’s supreme creations to generations of devoted fans. Now we have Vladimir Feltsman adding his vision to the innumerable versions of the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier . The list of admired Bach interpreters is not heavily weighted toward Russian artists, so some piano connoisseurs are likely to be intrigued by this release on Nimbus.

It’s not an easy task differentiating those interpretational preferences that are scholarship-based from those born of pure instinct, especially since so many of these strategies have slowly seeped from historically informed performers to “mainstream” artists. For example, Feltsman sometimes ends these movements with a fairly abrupt cessation of pulse (more like a breath before the final cadence—a hallmark of period-instrument practitioners), rather than a measure or two of ritardando . There are exceptions to this tendency, such as the slow unraveling in Prelude No. 4 from Book I, suggesting perhaps that for Feltsman instinct takes precedent over a scholar’s rulebook. Tempos are moderate, almost to a fault. There are few, if any, instances in which the pianist tries to draw out a rarely heard characteristic of these miniatures by pushing the tempo to one extreme or the other. Since Bach provided no tempo indications, this most basic element of interpretation is usually the first distinguishing trait worth examining, but Feltsman holds his cards close to the vest. If anything, his tempos run a bit under average, such as in the famous opening C-Major Prelude of Book I, drawn out patiently and with an ethereal touch. This will appeal to some as delightfully delicate, for others, cautious and precious.

Another tool in the pianist’s arsenal is the sustain pedal, the device that has continued to be a lightening rod for modern Baroque performance. Feltsman uses the device sparingly, in keeping with his generally restrained and self-effacing approach to Bach, and again in deference (consciously or otherwise) to prevailing norms. Similarly, his use of rubato (other than final cadences) is minimal, just enough to highlight the shape of a phrase, point out a noteworthy sequence, or telegraph an internal cadence or change of key. Prioritization of voices is another key subject, and Feltsman has certainly worked through this complex issue with care, though the differentiations in volume between melodic threads is a bit more subtle than for the aforementioned Gould and Schiff. There is one intriguing, if minor, idiosyncrasy regarding his conclusions. Bach ends most of the movements with long pitches, often with added fermatas. When the composer instead ends them with shorter, fermata-less notes, Feltsman emphasizes this distinction with brief, clipped final chords.

Some of the fugues are marked by sculpted and distinct voicing and a pervading sense of unyielding drive, though the tempos never race. The C-Major and G-Major Fugues from Book II are prime examples. Occasionally an understated reading will counterintuitively draw attention to itself, such as in the third prelude in C? from Book II. The fourth prelude from the same book is exquisitely drawn and profoundly moving. The Fifth Fugue (D Major), also from Book II, is among the most idiosyncratic of the lot, not because of any peculiar phrasing, but because his choice of a moderate tempo makes the inner relationships of the fugues clearer than is usually the case. If there is a shortcoming in this otherwise impressive survey, it would be a slight but persistent sense of discomfort with ornaments. They often seem uncomfortably rushed and not always particularly clean.

If you’re looking for a strong point of view or novel approach, this is not the recording for you. I don’t intend to suggest that the readings are dry or that the 48 movements lack individual character. Indeed, Feltsman is careful to provide a well-considered sensibility to each. The pianist is obviously awed by these works (who isn’t?), and it’s possible that this deference prevents a more personalized examination. The recorded sound is clean and neutral, fairly close but not unnaturally so. I can’t say that this is the first version of the WTC that I’ll reach for when I feel the need for musical nourishment, but it won’t gather dust either.

FANFARE: Michael Cameron

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NI2516-9

  • UPC: 710357251627

  • Label: Nimbus

  • Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Performer: Vladimir Feltsman


  1. Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846-869

    Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

    Performer: Vladimir Feltsman (Piano)

  2. Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, BWV 870-893

    Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

    Performer: Vladimir Feltsman (Piano)