Ever since a New York Times critic labeled Rosalyn Tureck the "high priestess of Bach," the epithet has stuck. It seems appropriate on several levels at once: not just for the sense of ritual that emerges from Tureck's interpretations--which can give the impression of a medium making contact--but in the cultlike devotion the Chicago-born pianist has inspired over a very long career, beginning as a prodigy in the '30s. Curiously enough, the young Tureck was also an exponent of modern music, and in 1930 actually premiered Léon Thérémin's electronic keyboard in Carnegie Hall. But it's with the music of Bach that Tureck has become inextricably linked, preserving her unique approach to this composer against the tides of fashion as well as the juggernaut of the "historically informed performance" movement--including her conviction of the validity of performing Bach's keyboard works on the piano (in one famous Carnegie Hall concert, she gave the entire Goldberg Variations twice, on harpsichord and then on piano).
The Goldberg Variations may well be the ultimate Tureck touchstone; of the six commercial recordings she's made throughout her career (the most recent was taped in 1997), this account was made in the Abbey Road Studios in 1957 and may well be her most compelling. Despite the tape hiss, the late '50s--when the other recordings here were made as well--are vintage Tureck years. The quintessential vision--with the trademark slow tempos that can make time seem to stand still, the wondrous clarity of line, the deep focus of mind--is all there, as well as Tureck's sparkling, exquisite pointing and amazing independence of hands. It's less surprising than it might seem at first that Tureck's polar opposite, Glenn Gould, prized her interpretations so highly. And while it may come across as too mannered--or even pedantic--to latter-day listeners, Tureck's patience bears fruit in the most inward of the variations and, most impressive, in the aria's return--in her own words, "one of the most sublime moments in all music." The set includes beautifully marbled accounts of the Partita BWV 831 and duets from the Klavierübung, as well as an exuberant realization of the Italian Concerto in F. These are performances to savor over and over. --Thomas May