“Pity, I’m Back!” Gulda Plays Bach

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BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: Excerpts. Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in d min. English Suite No. 2 / Friedrich Gulda, clavichord / Berlin Classics 885470010984

Here’s an unusual album, comprised of mono tapes that Gulda made of his own playing in 1978-79 in order to “monitor his own playing at concerts and during his morning practice.” According to the producer, Christoph Stickel:

The original tapes from which I worked were in a deplorable state. Even at first sight, I had to acknowledge that as they stood, the tapes were unplayable on account of being stuck together and making poor contact with the pickup head. Only after they had been “baked” a couple of times could they be played through freely.

On listening to the tapes I established that the recording quality also left much to be desired. Heavy rumbling, hissing and countless interruptions were due to the rudimentary recording technology. Some recordings were very muddy and muffled, others thin and strained – the consequence, evidently, of simple recording settings, not professionally monitored.

The tapes were digitalized at 192 kHz and subsequently processed step by step. After reducing the hum came the elimination of as many crackles and jumps as possible, though some had to be retained. The danger in reducing the background noise was that the original sound would be lost. Accordingly I gave the most time to this stage of the process, comparing technically flawless recordings by Gulda from the same period. Right up to the end, I was uncertain whether the high speed of some recordings was due to deficiencies in the tapes. However, as the pitch was correct and Herr Knapp recognized Gulda’s playing from many years in his company, we can conclude that the sometimes breakneck speed has its own inner logic. At the end of the process, the recordings that were qualitatively the best were selected for release.

The artistic question then arises: Since these were clearly meant as “practice tapes” only, and not something he wanted to release, should we do so? The answer comes as soon as you start listening. This is terrific Bach, some of the most exciting I’ve ever heard in my life. Except for the fact that he uses a clavichord, they resemble Glenn Gould on speed. The sheer energy and joy of the music cuts through whatever sound deficiencies remain like a hot knife through butter. Moreover, unlike many of today’s performers who race through Bach like maniacs, forsaking clear articulation for sheer speed, Gulda never shortchanges the music. Every note is articulated perfectly. I really do think that both old J.S. Bach and his son C.P.E. would love these performances.

Also, perhaps due to his long association (by this time) with jazz, Gulda emphasized the rhythmic aspects of the music in a much stronger manner than most classical keyboardists. No, he didn’t use a jazz rhythm, but nonetheless his rhythmic clarity results in the structural clarity of the music. The most syncopated of all is the Fugue No. 24 in b minor.

The pieces he chose to practice and perform are all familiar to Bach lovers. The Well-Tempered Clavier excerpts are, in order, the Preludes and Fugues Nos. 5, 23 and 17, then a break for the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, followed by the WTC Book II Preludes and Fugues Nos. 10, 20 and 24 and the English Suite No. 2. A couple of the WTC pieces and the Chromatic Fantasia have, for me, the roughest sound, while the second series of Preludes & Fugues and the English Suite are the boxiest, but when the performances are this splendid it doesn’t much matter. In addition, everything from the WTC Prelude & Fugue No. 17 onward is taken from live concerts, not practice sessions, so one can clearly endorse their release.

Interestingly, by playing the majority of these pieces at such quick tempi, Gulda emphasizes the Baroque nature of the music, Baroque in this case meaning highly ornamental. Of course, Bach’s works had meat on their Baroque bones, but the ornamental nature of his music is what comes through most clearly, and from his sons’ description of his own playing, he normally performed his own works with tremendous enthusiasm, not like some dry, academic exercises. (A little tidbit for all you Historically-Informed Historicals out there.) In the “Sarabande” of the English Suite, Gulda almost sounds as if he were strumming a guitar—an interesting effect. The very last movement of the English Suite, alas, has the most pitch distortion.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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