I think the main reason that i’ve never been a consumer of classical music is that there is no tidy discography for me to steadily consume. Sure, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco are prolific and untidy, but neither of them are Debussy or Bach – neither woman has every Tom, Schiff, and Gould releasing and re-issuing her major works once or twice a decade, only to have the best of them fall back out of print almost immediately. My inner OCD-completist is doubly stymied by the whole concept – once by the in-and-out-of-printness of it, and again by the idea of having to choose noit only my favorite composers, but also my favorite interpreter(s).
The thing is, i really like classical music. It’s beautiful, moving, rewarding, and very relaxing to listen to. However, for someone as anal as i it’s seemingly impossible to make a solid connection to some small facet of it. I joke with our Masters-in-music friend Anthony that if i ever get put on hold somewhere with good classical music i would three-way him into the call so he could identify the composer for me, as that’s my primary exposure to the medium.
The result has been that i don’t prefer any specific composer, and certainly no specific interpreter, but sometimes a specific work gets knocked into my head and never quite shakes loose. In high school our friend Sara was endlessly practicing a Debussy Prelude or Nocturne or whatever, and in college i picked up a two-disc set of them. At first it felt a bit indulgent – me, sitting in my room, listening to classical music. Now that i know the pieces a little better i actually love them – i sometimes play them quite intentionally, often on a loop at work for days at a time, humming along merrily to my favorite passages.
Recently Elise and I have been learning to play piano, and she has already reached the point of playing some of the simple Bach pieces, including two from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Which, so far as i understand, is to piano music as Superman is to comic books.
Trying to be a sweet boyfriend, i bought the collected Books 1 & 2 – not realizing, perhaps, that aside from providing a handful basic piano studies that these 48 pieces were some of the most highly regarded and difficult works for the keyboard. Of course (surely you can see where this is headed) that just meant that i wanted to learn them too.
I mostly sight-read and largely flailed my way through two preludes in friendly key signatures over the weekend, planning to alternate them regularly with my Hanon exercises. But, f you’ve ever met me, or read my web page, or even looked at its title you know that at this point in my obsession with a newfound interest i absolutely require more things. Collateral, collectibles, delectable trivial knowledge. In this case a recording, or maybe several recordings, of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier.
You might think that with all the powers of the internet at my command i could be recommended one version of one of the most famous collections of piano music with some amount of uniformity in relatively short order. You would, of course, be wrong. The internet is an capricious mistress, and from her the best i could muster was that Glenn Gould’s versions were the quintessial interpretations of a tempo-mangling asshole. Or, as termed by one of Amazon’s more skilled reviewers, “Not for Bach beginners–fair enough?”
[In the interest of aiding other erstwhile searchers on a quest similar to my own, i’ll continue this excerpt from the charming wit of one Mr. Sanity Inspector, Top 1,000 Reviewer: From the very first bars, with the flowing ascending theme played partly in a counter-intuitive staccato, the in-the-know listener can tell that this will be a highly idiosyncratic rendering. … However, a newcomer to this work would do well to begin with a more conventional reading.]
My search continued past the obvious and oft-namedchecked Gould, for the moment. Of use to this endeavor was The J.S. Bach Homepage, which contains a modest but well-kept archive of reviews of major JSB releases. Between this and raptly reading along in our WTC book to 30-second Amazon song samples, i’m least closer to making an informed decision than i was two hours ago.
As of now i am down to Richter (a rather essential interpretation, apparently) or Bernard Roberts (moderate, recent, well-recorded, and affordable), or possibly Angela Hewitt (recent, technically proficient, researched, stellar liner notes). Gould, obviously, was discarded, and I saw Schiff described as “mushy” a few too many times for my taste (haterz always prevail on the internets) (also, check out that album cover; yeesh). A few others i passed on just based on the blah-ness of their C, D, and G passages (i.e., the ones that make the most sense to me) (says the incredibly inexperienced listener brandishing his music minor threateningly).
All that said i will – as always – also submit to the vast and whimsically cultivated knowledge of my readership-at-large. If you have a favorite version of the classic 48 pieces that compose Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 AND 2 played on piano and available on compact disc please don’t hesitate to recommend them to me at krisis at the venerable domain of uprush dot org.