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Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier

Friedrich Gulda (piano)

(Philips "Duo": Book 1 446 545-2, Book 2 446 548-2; two discs each)

First impressions of Jacques Loussier without the bass and drums are only partially misleading. Friedrich Gulda sits poised on the edge of swing - in the E minor Fugue from Book 2, for example, which starts out to an upbeat, stinging staccato.

Some readers might find the recordings just too aggressive: the treble is exceptionally bright, the mid-range lacks body and the bass sounds oddly synthetic. Your speakers seem to become the instrument, although the softer performances relay a far subtler impression.

Taken as a whole, though, this is among the most exhilarating sets of "The 48" around, a widely variegated reading that recalls the grandeur of Wanda Landowska, the concentration of Glenn Gould, the structural exegeses of Rosalyn Tureck and the colourist refinement of Samuel Feinberg. Gulda's latter-day jazz exploits helped seed a profoundly re-creative approach to Bach, one that ranges in style from the heady exuberance of Prelude and Fugue No 5 to the rapturously tiered sonorities of the G sharp minor Fugue (No 18) - perhaps the most remarkably sustained piece of Bach playing I have ever heard.

True, there are sundry embellishments, eccentricities and interpretative extremes, but none that defies musical reason. Buy Book 1 and you'll be back for Book 2 before the day is out!

Taped some 10 years before Claudio Abbado was appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, this Prokofiev Third Symphony - one of the very first Western recordings of the work - parades a familiar line-up of virtues: dynamism, a keen sense of structure and an invariable singing line. Textures are mostly luminous (a useful virtue in Prokofiev's overcrowded outer movements), while pin-sharp articulation helps clarify the string-writing, especially in the closing Andante con moto, a monster of a piece that's too often sold short as mere noise.

Decca's engineering reflects the conductor's fetish for detail, although the occasional spotlit solo betrays an old-fashioned approach to sound balancing - the timps in Hindemith's riotous "Turandot Scherzo", for example, tend to leap into sudden prominence. Still, the Symphonic Metamorphosis certainly pulls no punches; the opening Allegro is patient but powerful, the Scherzo's braying trills are suitably irreverent and the closing "Marsch" ends with a rigorous "Ra-ta-ta-tum".

Janacek's Sinfonietta opens to beautifully shaped fanfares, which, on their triumphant return 20 minutes later, suggest the Sokol gymnastics that originally inspired them.

Decca's "The Classic Sound" transfers are excellent, even if the odd audible edit reminds us of those not-too-far-off days when seamless digital patchwork was still a thing of the future.

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