Murray Perahia's latest recording brings together the second, third, and fourth partitas of Bach. That programming reassures me that I was not too harsh on the recording of the same pieces by Cédric Tiberghien. Having loved Perahia's recording of the Goldberg Variations and admired his live performance of the fourth partita last fall, I can hardly be surprised to find myself loving this disc. When it comes to Bach's keyboard music, I almost always prefer a recording on a good harpsichord, but there is room in my ears for fine recordings on modern instruments. Recent favorites are Alexandre Tharaud for balletic, muscular grace and Angela Hewitt for velvet suavity.
Bach, Partitas 2-4, Murray Perahia, piano
(released March 18, 2008)
Sony Classical 88697-22697-2
In an article in The Independent with Geoffrey Norris (Why Murray Perahia turned to Bach, March 20), Perahia has spoken about his connection to Bach, having become obsessed with his music by studying it when recovering from a hand injury. From what I have heard so far, Perahia's Bach is technically assured and stylistically daring but informed. These three partitas are played with an intelligent understanding of the forms but with flair and interest for the ear, too. Rarely in a way that draws attention to itself, but in a favorite movement like the Rondeau in no. 2, for example, his crunchy articulations and fun embellishments make you wish he had taken the repeat. The distinctive part of the partitas is that Bach breaks away from the rigorous order of dances in the other suites, including a broader range of alternate dances and other forms (Capriccio, Rondeau, Burlesca).
In one of those color pieces, the Scherzo in no. 3, Perahia takes a hard-edged approach, emphasizing the jagged quality of the subject and darting through the movement, with both repeats, in just over one minute. The odd chord in measure 28 of that piece (the A minor triad underneath the rounded binary restatement of the opening subject, undermined by an unexplained G#), according to Paul Badura-Skoda (Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard, p. 220), "makes sense only when it is arpeggiated." That is more or less what Perahia does, making the dyad sound like an ornament.
The same freedom applies to the first-movement preludes: the opening Sinfonia of no. 2 is a model of stylistic polish, from the added lute-like rolled chords of the opening Grave to the filigree 32nd notes and the contrapuntal closing section. In the third partita's opening Fantasia, Perahia uses the piano's greater range of voicing to take what is by appearances a two-part texture and pull it into a greater number of voices, expanding some notes that hang in the air. The first movement of Partita No. 4 is labeled an overture. In the French style, its slow, dotted opening section is far overshadowed by the extended three-part fugue. How does Perahia get those long, held bass notes (F# and then B, right in the middle of the fugue) to sustain so clearly? He does the same thing with the sustained A in the first half of the Aria. The Sarabande, with its moment of reverie in the second measure (and repeated twice later), is thankfully more elegant than moony. The Gigue, while played very fast, never feels frenetic. What can one do but hope that Perahia will recover soon from his latest hand troubles and record the second volume?