Bach, Partitas 1/5/6, Murray Perahia (piano)
(released on August 31, 2009)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7463
Bach, Keyboard Partitas (BWV 825-30)
That said, Perahia's approach to nos. 1, 5, and 6 is mostly after my own heart: rhythmically propelled, crisp, with primary interest given to differences in articulation rather than dynamic contrasts. Surely, one cannot expect a pianist playing Bach to ignore the dynamic possibilities of the modern piano, even if shifts between registers or manuals was the only real dynamic shift Bach could have envisaged. In the B-flat major partita (no. 1, one of my favorites of the set) Perahia does not add many embellishments, preferring more to explore alterations to the texture, for example, lengthening some notes in the stream of eighth notes of the first menuet to make independent lines. The character of both menuets is so refined, almost a parody of gentility, as to make one smile (a similar quality is found in the minuetto and passepied of no. 5), and the clarity of the crossed-hand melodic exchanges in the gigue is something for any keyboard player to admire.
The last two partitas in the set are probably the most difficult to play, with extended preludes, lots of filigree gestures in the dances, especially in the sixth partita, almost as if Bach is showing us how a really talented player might ornament a dance movement. The contrapuntal gigue of the E minor partita (no. 6) has a subject that uses almost all twelve chromatic notes (all but C# and D are used in the first two measures). Bach was interested in chromatic themes, of course, and created many of them or was given them (the Thema Regium of the Musical Offering uses all but one of the twelve chromatic notes), an interest probably related to his interest in keyboard temperaments. Recently Eric Altschuler and Noam Elkies have made claims that Bach used a 12-tone row two centuries before Schoenberg invented the idea, referring to a two-bar passage in the theme of the A minor Prelude from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II (BWV 889). The idea makes for a nice piece on NPR, but it does not really hold water: Bach does indeed use all twelve tones in the middle of his theme, repeating it many times, but he is not really writing a dodecaphonic piece, at least not as Schoenberg, Webern, or even Berg would have understood it.
Murray Perahia's upcoming WPAS recital at the Kennedy Center (October 17, 4 pm) will feature Bach's sixth partita on the program.