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Reviews: Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) - Sviatoslav Richter

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Reviews: 2

Review by canonical October 5, 2012 (8 of 14 found this review helpful)
Sviatoslav Richter's recording of the Well-tempered Clavier is my favourite rendition I prefer it to even that of Glenn Gould. So, this is not only a five-star performance, but amongst the very finest that exist, and the best that I know of. The merits of the performance are already well-known, so there does not seem any real purpose in giving such a fabulous well-known performance a star rating. Rather, the purpose of this particular release is its transfer to SACD, apparently directly from the master tapes which brings one to the sonics.

These recordings were made in analogue in 1970 -1973 on a Bosendorfer at Schloß Klesheim in Salzburg ... tuned about a half-semitone higher than normal pitch. They have always had an unusual resonant sonic I have seen others who have complained about it but I have always found the sound quite ethereal, and rather well-suited to Herr Bach. So what does SACD do for it?

The answer is . odd things. The sound on my original redbook CD release is more raw, more natural, and oddly closer to a natural piano sound than the SACD release. The SACD version sound is sometimes clear, and sometimes muted, and it has unusual piano harmonics. Sometimes, the voicing of parts seems peculiar, or that something is missing. Or sometimes it seems that one part (usually in the mid-range) has unusual clarity, but the other parts are out of balance. The bass line is often emaciated. I couldn't understand this. Then, I listened with headphones and I noticed that whereas the original CD version is VERY hissy (unpleasantly so with headphones, but perfectly fine listening with speakers), the SACD version with headphones has almost no hiss whatsoever. And that, I suspect, is the clue to the problem. This is not just a raw transfer from the original analogue tapes to DSD Rather, it has been de-greased, wiped with disinfectant, anti-mould and decongestant. To my ears, it sounds rather like the dubious EMI re-releases onto SACD: something that has been so severely over-processed, nuked and radiated that the sound has become 'weird'.

For standard stereo loudspeaker listening, I much prefer my original redbook CD version: the CD version is vastly more natural and more balanced. For headphone listening, I do find the hiss of the original CD a problem, but I am not sure I would want the weird sonics of the SACD version either. Overall then, the SACD version is sadly disappointing. If you do not already have this set, I would go for the standard CD version: far less expensive, and far superior.

Presentation: 4 green Martian discs nicely presented in a standard 4-box CD case. The green SACDs are similar to those used in single-layer SHM-SACDs, but these are hybrids. The artwork design very nicely matches the original CD release I have. Notes are in Japanese, but track listings etc are in English and Japanese.

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Review by Polarius T October 15, 2012 (8 of 11 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
An odd response by the other reviewer above. What one is hearing on this new remaster is greater fidelity which puts everything into sharper relief. The problem with all the previous releases (I've had maybe six of them over the years, starting with the domestic Soviet-era LP box set) was that the acoustics were so "wet" that the piano tone became extremely diffuse, making it hard to distinguish between the directly produced sound and its reflections and acoustic effects in the environment. The individual tones, and entire lines and the counterpoint, just "swam" in a vague space that was difficult to analyse into its components (sound, overtone structure, hall sound).

Soundwise this new transfer and remastering is in a wholly other universe compared to most of the previous versions made available. The RCA USA release of these pieces, for instance, was truly abhorrent, and I am sure it alienated a lot of listeners from these sublime performances. Not sure how one managed to kill Richter's piano sound on it so effectively. It's far and wide the worst-sounding version of this particular WTC by Richter that I've heard. It's true that the sonics aren't ideal to begin with on the original recording, but in about all the other versions put out of these recordings you hear it as being a factor of very unfortunate microphone placement (Richter had no tolerance for sharing the stage with mics and they basically had to be hidden from his sight behind curtains some 100 yards away or so) and not some post-production manipulation. The basic problem with the tapes has always been the overreverberant acoustics which leaves the piano sound very distant, vague, and undefined, sending it floating all over the place in some remote hard-to-detect dimension. But the RCA version was just sonically dead altogether, for whatever reason.

The biggest difference between this new Sony SACD and the previous-best Japanese JVC 20-bit K2 release that was part of the now out-of-print deluxe Japan Victor "Richter Collection Box" from about ten years or so ago is that here the piano sound is more solid and focused even in loud forte passages and big chords. No cracking and dispersion in even those monstrous Richter attacks, always just notes with a solid three-dimensional core and well-defined edges. The individual notes are appreciably fuller and more lifelike now, having a more natural relation to their acousting environment as well. There is also more depth and "realness" to the sound picture. The results thus better reward listening on higher sound pressure levels, which for me is a joy. Also the piano tone's general "swimming in weird and wet acoustics" quality is more toned down here (it is of course quite remarkable still). The overall effect of this more lifelike and realistic piano (and hall) sound is quite seductive, and once you have really listened to this new set, it is hard to force yourself to go back to the older ones for comparison.

Of all the WTC recordings by Richter (whether complete or partial), for purely sonics-related reasons (the quality of the original recording) many of the more fanatical Richter aficionados have, however, for long preferred Richter's 1969 Moscow WTC I, which has been put out by several labels in the past, and I can understand why. The best version among those is the recently released Melodiya MEL CD 10 01848. These newly minted Melodiyas are little short of miraculous in revealing so much more of those old and well-known Richter recordings -- highly recommended. It (the Moscow WTC I) is perhaps also my favorite of them all, excepting perhaps the extremely fascinating and very differently recorded WTC II excerpts from Budapest from 1973 that are included in the BMC Records' "Richter in Hungary" box set. They are recorded far more closely and you really get to hear so much more that is entirely new to you in Richter's Bach. Completely captivating and entrancing to hear the master in such a life-like and almost intimate setup (you really hear nuances that you thought not even Richter was capable of), and the sound quality is to my personal taste the most preferable of them all (whether that's objectively the "best" depends of course on the criteria you use -- for me it's about hearing Richter's Bach as clearly and closely as possible).

In performance terms, Richter himself thought that his one and only most successful WTC was the one he recorded live in 1973 in Innsbruck (covers both books). In it, he does indeed sound at his most inspired, which is saying a lot, but sonically it's not on the same level as the Melodiya Moscow or the BMC Budapest tapes (or even these 1970-73 Salzburg ones IMHO). It was originally released by Victor Japan, but was quickly withdrawn after Richter's death due to a copyright dispute. It is, however, still available through the Chinese Poloarts label, with different artwork, language, and looks, but with the exact same high-quality JVC remastering -- it was (at least originally) a legit licencing deal (and you can get it for basically peanuts).

Overall, I've greatly enjoyed the much-enhanced piano sound of this new Sony remaster, finding many of the individual pieces as it were anew. It's been spinning at my home every day since I got it, and each time I find more reasons to enjoy the newly found clarity in it. There's also more of a sense of palpable depth and spatial organization to the sound picture, and you can play it a lot louder thanks to the much better focused piano tone. If there ever was a reason for better balancing of a recording, it was here, and that has now been achieved. I think it is also fine to like mushy and less well defined sound (indeed it can get pretty ethereal at times) as in all the previous versions of this recording (except the lousy RCA one from the more recent years which had other kind of problems as the main culprit) and on LPs etc., but when writing a review, it is a good thing to be able to separate between one's personal/subjective likings and the more objective qualities of the thing being reviewed. It is also good to remember that the quality and characteristics of tape hiss (just as of applause, for instance) change when switching between standard redbook CDs and SACDs (everything becomes less shrill and sharp, and more full and better rounded around the edges, just like in real life). And that to the better, in my view.

* Performance rating: Five stars compared to WTCs by all other Bach performers; 4 stars compared to Richter's other performances of the same.

* Sonics: Five stars for the quality of the remastering and to balance the exaggerated quick dismissal by the other reviewer that methodologically proceeds the wrong way (from wild conjecture to evaluation of the results on evidence); about 3 stars for the quality of the original recording (which, however, some might enjoy -- just as I do on occasion -- for its peculiar, almost otherwordly characteristics and some will hate).

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