Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works for Solo Keyboard
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 870-893
Jeffrey Middleton, piano
Recorded One Soul Studios, New York City, 2004
One Soul Recordings PLR2004.07.18 [2cds - 70:40 + 69:18]
Summary: Comfortable performances, but not very comforting
In terms of the field of competition, this set of Bach's Well Tempered
Clavier, Book 2 reminds me of a recent recording I reviewed of the Coull
Quartet playing Mozart string quartets. Taken in isolation, both are
highly enjoyable, but comparisons with other versions on the market
clearly reveal a less compelling interpretive stance.
We are blessed with an abundance of riches of piano recordings of the
WTC that excellently reveal this body of music as one of the towering
artistic achievements of Western Civilization: Richter, Feinberg, Martins,
Gould, Tureck, Gulda, Koroliov, Aldwell, Schiff, Schepkin, Fischer, etc.
Unfortunately, Middleton is a well below the insights offered by these
Before describing Middleton's performance style, I should say a few words
about the man and the One Soul Recordings label. Mr. Middleton graduated
from The Juilliard School and earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree
from the Yale School of Music. He has been on the faculties of the
School of American Ballet, The Harlem School of the Arts, and the New
Jersey City University. As a professional performer, Middleton has
toured extensively in the United States, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as a
soloist, chamber musician, and vocal accompanist. Other recordings
include the music of Joseph Fennimore and George Walker.
One Soul Recordings is a recording studio in New York City that offers
its recording and production facilities to musicians. The company's
website has recordings for sale, and that's how I acquired Middleton's
WTC recordings after reading reviews in Fanfare and American Record
Guide. For what it's worth, the Fanfare reviewer had a positive reaction
to the performances, although American Record Guide was cool to the
Middleton's approach to Bach is relatively straight-forward with no
detours allowed. His tempos are on the quick side, contours are rounded,
the pedals are used lightly, and changes in tempo and dynamics are
minimal. He does a fine job with the pieces possessing dotted rhythms,
and I think it fair to say that the interpretations are user-friendly
When comparing Middleton's performances to the top versions of the WTC,
various deficiencies become obvious. First, emotional depth is largely
avoided as Middleton has no interest in getting "down and dirty"; put
another way, Bach's bleakest environments are given a light brushing.
This is most damaging in presenting the contrast between Bach's dark
side and his glorious rays of light. Second, the straight-ahead style
Middleton employs involves minimal nuance and eventually leads to a loss
of interest. This could have been offset by great tension and excitement,
but Middleton's level of tension is not strong and his drive can be
intermittent. Third, although his lyricism is admirable, it definitely
pales next to Tureck, Schepkin, and Schiff. The sonics are clear as a
bell, but I can't say that Middleton uses the soundstage to explore the
wonderful and complex architecture; for this feature, Gould and Gulda
are light-years ahead of Middleton.
What really kills this release is the price tag - $43 plus shipping and
handling. That makes this set one of the most expensive WTC Book II's
on the market. Obviously, the combination of high price and lack of
compelling performances is a losing proposition to the potential buyer.
Although the packaging is quite handsome and similar to a DVD release,
it's the content that counts.
Don's Conclusions: Thoroughly professional and unmannered performances
are not good enough for Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. It's greatness
is revealed in its architecture, emotional breadth, and depth of expression.
At best, Middleton is only moderately successful in these crucial areas.
Given the steep price tag and fierce competition, I cannot recommend
acquisition of this exceptionally packaged product.
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