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1.6.09

New Bach Recordings: David Fray's Concertos

available at Amazon
Bach, Keyboard Concertos (BWV 1052, 1055, 1056, 1058), D. Fray (piano), Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

(released on January 13, 2009)
Virgin Classics 50999 213 064 2 6

Online scores:
BWV 1052 | BWV 1055
BWV 1056 | BWV 1058
David Fray impressed me in his last concert appearance in Washington, with Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France, as mildly eccentric, slouching in a chair and humming along to his own technically polished, pearly-toned reading of Beethoven's second piano concerto. Jens had appreciative remarks for Fray, too, in a rare performance of a Nino Rota piano concerto two years ago. The French pianist's recent recording of four of the Bach harpsichord concertos, with piano and the strings of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in reduced numbers (7-5-4-3-2), has much to recommend it, although it does not really stand out from the (considerable) competition. Fray's gentle, flat-fingered touch is at its best in the slow movement of the F minor concerto, BWV 1056, played with a wholly unmannered simplicity. The tempi are generally steady, which creates a lot of motoric interest because of Fray's sparkling technique, with the 32nd notes in the third movement of BWV 1052, for example, like bubbly flourishes.

As usual, if one could have only one recording of these works, for me it would be one with harpsichord and historical instruments, probably Trevor Pinnock with the English Concert, which remains extremely pleasing (now at a rock-bottom price in a 3-CD set with the equally good concertos for two or more harpsichords). More recently, the ever-reliable Richard Egarr has done well with the Academy of Ancient Music, but the performances by Café Zimmermann with Céline Frisch (not all recorded yet), are the most intriguing, made with a chamber-size ensemble rather than a small orchestra. On piano with forces like the Fray recording, pride of place would still go to Angela Hewitt (with Australian Chamber Orchestra) or, more likely, Murray Perahia (with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields), with possible detours to András Schiff and even the eccentric Glenn Gould, who may leave you puzzled but rarely bored.

The drawbacks of Fray's version include some overly heavy use of the sustaining pedal, making passages like the sixteenth notes alternated between the hands not as dry as they should be. He also does nothing with the few cadenza moments, as at the end of BWV 1052's third movement -- Pinnock at least adds a little scalar flourish before the cadence that Bach notated (it is worth noting that Pinnock's recording, on the harpsichord, is even a hair faster than Fray's on 1052/3, while Gould is a lot slower). The group takes a few liberties, too, as in BWV 1056/3 where the strings play the echoed 8th notes as pizzicato (they are marked only as piano in the score). The ensemble seems artificially unbalanced, with the piano almost always in the foreground, even when the strings have the more interesting melodic material, as in parts of the first movement of BWV 1052.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Fray also served as "conductor" in these performances and, to continue the self-regarding character of the performance, Bruno Monsaingeon made a film about Fray's work on this recording (his score preparation at home, the rehearsal and recording sessions), of which an excerpt is embedded below. While Fray's humming and bee-bopping antics are on display in the rehearsals on the DVD, they are mostly inaudible on the CD. Whatever you may think of Fray's look (whose floppy hair, shirt open at the chest, and sulking frown are vintage 1980s Jon Bon Jovi), we remind you that it worked well enough for Fray, who married Riccardo Muti's daughter Chiara last summer.

62'17"


Excerpts from Swing, Sing and Think: David Fray Records
J. S. Bach
, dir. Bruno Monsaingeon

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