Search - Konstantin Lifschitz Plays Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II on DVD

Konstantin Lifschitz Plays Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I & II
Konstantin Lifschitz Plays Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I II
Actor: Konstantin Lifschitz
Genres: Music Video & Concerts, Musicals & Performing Arts
NR     2008     4hr 25min


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Movie Details

Actor: Konstantin Lifschitz
Genres: Music Video & Concerts, Musicals & Performing Arts
Sub-Genres: Music Video & Concerts, Classical
Studio: Video Artists Int'l
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 12/09/2008
Original Release Date: 01/01/2008
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2008
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 4hr 25min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 0
Edition: Classical
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Astonishing variety of diction and depth
Daniel J. Rose | Shrewsbury, MA USA | 03/14/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"NOTE: Please allow me to beg your pardon, as this is my fourth attempt to get this review right, now as of 21 May 2009.

I once favorably compared the playing of Konstantin Lifschitz in his youthful recording of a great Bach masterwork, the Goldberg Variations, with Sviatislav Richter's playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I was impressed with his sweep and energy, the virtuosity and clarity of his playing, even as Mr. Lifschitz, himself, had later said he was not at all happy with his Bach playing. After hearing (and watching) Konstantin's own live performance of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier presented on this beautifully recorded DVD, I think I understand a little better what he meant.

He is over 10 years older for this performance, and his approach to the 48 preludes and fugues is much different from his Goldberg Variations. Of course, they are much different works, but Lifschitz, I believe, goes further in presenting a different stylistic approach to Bach. He still has the energy and power that characterized his earlier Goldberg recording, but that is only a very small part of his present reading. He uses his power selectively together with a much richer palette of touch, dynamics, tempi, rubato, and all manner of both legato and staccato devices to clarify and characterize each prelude and fugue as an individual personality. Thinking on my readings about Bach, Konstantin's playing strikes me as very similar to what was reported of Bach, himself, who was known for wide-ranging expression in the performances of his own work.

Indeed, Konstantin's strength is most apparent in the circumstances of the performance itself. He plays the entire 48 from memory in a set of concerts held over a single day (March 30, 2008). The relaxed concentration he exhibits is astonishing in itself. He also plays both books of the 48 together, rather than separately, playing the preludes and fugues in the same key from each book together in order through all the keys. In general, the stamina required to manage the entire work in a day cannot be overstated, but the rewards for the audience are as great, especially where he varies his attack, sometimes jumping in quickly from a prelude to its fugue and other times waiting to begin, based on the accumulated expectations and energy to that point. One notable flaw in the recording is the occasional sound of a hard object falling on the floor or striking something that perhaps represents an audience artifact or Lifschitz shifting in his seat. However, the piano sound and Lifschitz's concentration remain almost true throughout.

Konstantin has always had a remarkable ability to layer voices using subtle differences in touch and dynamics. He uses that skill, along with his varied touch almost flawlessly to separate and accentuate the fugal voices, as well as the varied textures of the preludes. His rubato is also remarkable in that it is true, rarely interfering with his lively rhythm or otherwise steady tempo, even in softer passages. In fact, he is able to play the softest passages with two or more layers of softness, always producing a rich multi-dimensional texture in the sound where he does so.

The effect of all this variety of touch, legato, staccato, and dynamics is that he is able, more than most other pianists I have heard, to clearly separate all the fugal statements from the contrapuntal ground with almost perfect clarity, no matter what else is going on. For example, a somewhat earlier recording of the 48 by a fellow Russian, Sergey Schepkin (Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 and Well Tempered Clavier Book 2), is also played with great virtuosity in terms of speed, varieties of staccato, legato, and overall dynamics, and ease of delivery. However, unlike Lifschitz, Schepkin rarely separates the voices in the preludes, not to mention the fugues, with any clarity. Despite a lively and otherwise enjoyable performance, all of Schepkin's voices in a given prelude or fugue typically get the same style and level of treatment. It is also true that Schepkin readily confesses his use of the "Bach" piano as a kind of super harpsichord, where as Lifschitz seems much more to engage the greater possibilities of the modern piano, perhaps as Bach might have used one if he had it.

One curious and refreshing change from the usual is his augmentation of the dotted rhythm in the theme of the first C major fugue from two 32nd notes to a non-dotted rhythm of two longer 16th notes. I'm not familiar with the scholarship behind this, but I do notice that his choice seems to match up the initial statements with later statements of the same thematic idea, while preserving the dotted 32nd note rhythm in other parts of the fugue. The result has a more relaxed and balanced feel than one might be used to.

The one place where Lifschitz seems to falter a bit, aside from two or three barely noticeable double-note strikes throughout the entire performance, is in the fugue of the penultimate Prelude and Fugue XXIV in B minor, BWV 869. Here, he starts out with a deliberate and expressive first statement of the theme. Then, for some unaccountable reason, he immediately accelerates as he proceeds with the second statement. It's as if he felt he started the first statement too slowly and wanted to ramp it up to the proper tempo after the fact, which makes the whole fugue seem a bit unsteady. Frankly, I think he was (understandably) tired at this point, and this caused him to lose concentration, which he worked a bit too hard to regain during the entire working out of this penultimate fugue. Other missteps occur, such as rare moments where he fails to bring out a fugal statement above the counterpoint, as he had been doing so successfully before. Despite this unfortunate digression from form, I feel the performance deserves the perfect five stars I have given it because, if anything, the bit of failure in this fugue serves to clarify just how remarkable a success the balance of the performance represents. Also, fortunately, Lifschitz regains his concentration and finishes true to form with the final Prelude and Fugue XXIV in B minor, BWV 893, and all ends up right with the world--all and all, a profoundly engaging performance, both emotionally and intellectually.

Finally, while I have always held Richter's recording of the 48 as a personal favorite, Lifschitz adds a complete and completely different approach that I find just as compelling. If a performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier were a tour of the Himalayas, Richter's might be represented by a speedy jet that takes you soaring high above the peaks, and yet also can somehow land both on the peaks and in the valleys as he chooses. Lifschitz, on the other hand, brings you much closer to the action, taking you deliberately and intimately, up and down every mountain, from the valleys to the peaks and back with endless energy and sense of invention, and he occasionally offers an exhilarating and soaring helicopter ride off some of the more spectacular peaks as well, allowing you both a micro and macroscopic view of Bach's musical landscape.

I might be very surprised if this performance does not become something of a legend, barring the fact that Lifschitz's recordings, in general, seem to have become sadly less available in recent years. Also, I realize that Bach inspires a great many religions dedicated to his performance, which often leave little room for one another. I hope this performance might serve to promote a greater religious co-existence in these many temples of Bach, as Bach's own historical example seems to show."
The joy in Bach
Steven M. Zucker | Baltimore, MD | 01/23/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Some listeners dislike Bach, period. Others love Bach, but reject the notion of playing it on the piano. The present DVD would not appeal to these people; indeed, they are unlikely to be reading this review. This is a glorious performance of the WTC for the rest of us to savor.

According to what I've read, Lifschitz was to Kissin as Richter was to Gilels. In each pair, when the second was getting rave reviews in his American debut, he averred that there was even better back home. Anyway, for me the comparison of Lifschitz to Richter is telling, in that it allows us to compare two incomparable but very different pianists. However, I will try to limit my comments to the music at hand.

Lifschitz's performance is foremost about communication; even if he were talking to himself, it is great to be able to eavesdrop. In his hands, the music comes to life (even the fugues) in a miraculous way. It is an intimate reading, imbued with his unique personality. As such, it has a romantic character, yet does not transgress beyond contemporary standards of Bach as played on the piano, and it covers a wide range of moods. A good illustration of what I mean here is II.P/F3 [Book II, Prelude and Fugue no. 3], where it proceeds from serene and reverent, to driven, to playful. In general, the music sings or swings, prays or plays, rips or skips, floats and flutters. In this way, he is very different from Richter; the latter succeeds in WTC at "just playing the music", as he always insists: superbly, of course, rock solid yet never rigid. I could imagine that some listeners might prefer it that way. Yet Lifschitz has a remarkable way of conveying the emotional content of the music.

Lifschitz elects to alternate between Books I and II, i.e., playing the pieces in the order I.P/F1, II.P/F1 I.P/F2, etc. In this way, the listener is constantly reminded of how far Bach's composition style had advanced in the 20-odd years between the publication of the two books. As I hear it, the preludes of Book II are sonata-like, foreshadowing the classical era, and I even hear a hint of Beethoven.

As this is a DVD, one must not overlook the power of the visual aspect. Though Richter took a swipe at concertgoers who want to watch the pianists hands, seeing the pianist close-up enhances the listening experience. We can see how the artist uses his hands, arms and body to create the effects he makes, as well as observe the often revealing expressions on his face.

One should also refer to Daniel Rose's excellent review, which contains a different take consistent (I feel) with what I wrote above. I disagree, though, with his faulting Lifschitz for the change of tempo in I.F24, for I think the music is about the struggle and flow of life itself. The pain becomes part of the flow. I doubt that he lost concentration. Moreover, he wanted to give a highlighted statement of the jarring fugal subject, which I find that he did in some other instances as well.

In sum, this performance is a major achievement. I think it's a must-buy; indeed, I purchased five additional copies to give to friends. But I warn you, the playing is so infectious that it can become addictive, though in a way that can be carried in one's head and soul. It is the true joy of Bach. Don't miss it!