CD REVIEW From Harpsichord to Piano

Perahia’s ‘Partitas’ Become the New Standard

Murray Perahia

Bach Partitas 1, 5 and 6

Sony Classical

Released August 31, 2009

Of the three sets of keyboard pieces J.S. Bach published between 1715 and 1730, the Partitas are, by far, the weirdest.

They’re interesting works and they show Bach’s development as a keyboard composer and a teacher of the instrument. The earliest of the three, the English Suites (BWV 806–811 written between — we think — 1715 and 1722) are predictable: an imitative Prelude, followed by a stoic Allemande, a playful Courante, an erotic Sarabande, a non-standard fifth movement, and a concluding Gigue. The second of the three, the French Suites (BWV 812–817), written between 1722 and 1725, starts to play games. Bach sometimes leaves out the Prelude, often intersperses multiple dance movements between the Sarabande, and, sometimes, even forgets the Gigue movement at the end of the work.

But it’s in the Partitas, the latest of the works (written between 1726 and 1730 — BWV 825–830) that Bach introduces the oddest birds of his trade. Fugal Preludes are exchanged for more dramatic Sinfonias, Overtures or Fantasias. Certainly, a core structure of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue still exists, but the forms that are added in between are vast and varied in their structures and their origins, idiosyncrasies that make the works all the more endearing. The pieces display Bach as the experimentalist. Voicings in these works are confused, interweaving subjects more fluidly than the previous works. Other pieces brazenly foreshadow (or, at the very least, provide some sort of impetus for) Schoenberg-ian twelve-tone, gleefully riffing on a fugal subject, inverting, retrograde inverting and augmenting the theme to bare recognition.

And it’s these pieces that Murray Perahia recently finished recording, releasing Partitas 2, 3 and 4 in March 2008, and recently releasing the complementary three at the end of August.

It’s a brazen task. Recording the Partitas, including the other keyboard sets, has been the stuff of legend, a practice started before Perahia was even born by almost every major pianist of the twentieth century; Wanda Landowska and Rudolf Serkin were among the first to record the pieces on harpsichord and piano, respectively, at the turn of the century. Shortly after, Glenn Gould made two monumental recordings of the works (twice), followed in close succession by Martha Argerich, András Schiff, Angela Hewitt, and a plethora of others.

It’s a wonder it took Perahia, so famous for his interpretation and performance of Bach, so long to release his recording of these works.

Each of these recordings are different from each other depending on changes on scholarship and performance practice as it evolved over this past century, not to mention personal interpretation by each of the giants of the instrument.

Perahia’s recording finds its own voice among these as a comfortable traversal of the harrowing works on an instrument that the performer understands intimately. Each work manages elegance without the precious cloy of a pianist attempting to recreate the touch of a harpsichord on the modern instrument.

This isn’t to say that works are played anachronistically or messily; the opposite: Perahia approaches Bach asking how the composer would have viewed the Partitas on the modern piano. Symphonic passages are often tastefully muted, preferring the reserved sound world of the harpsichord to exploiting the true orchestral sensibility of the modern piano.

That said, Perahia doesn’t shy away from crescendos, phrasing, or modern touches that would have been impossible on the harpsichord. Where other recordings race through the dances in an attempt to enhance the effect of Bach’s counterpoint, Perahia approaches these works at a saunter, exploiting the multiple dynamic levels of the piano to accentuate voicings or highlight central motives. While certain passages tend toward rhythmic instability or inaccuracy, it’s a spectacle to hear Perahia’s impeccable articulation; scales and runs are played with a precision and clarity that rival machines in technique and vocalists in their melodic phrasing.

It’s an interesting conversation that Perahia engages in these recordings, translating Bach for the modern piano, as opposed to translating Bach’s harpsichord to the modern instrument. Although this disc is another addition to the ever-growing number of important and influential recordings that have accumulated over the past century, it’s difficult not to hear something special in Perahia’s rendition.

Certainly, Perahia’s technical abilities alone merit this recording of the Partitas earning its rightful place as one of the great recordings of the work. But the the fact that it is so thoughtfully presented, so carefully crafted by a musician so informed and concerned with the original intent of the composer and the nuance of the instrument makes this recording one of the standards of the genre.