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Perahia's Partitas, Vol. 2

available at Amazon
Bach, Partitas 1/5/6, Murray Perahia (piano)

(released on August 31, 2009)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7463

available at Amazon
Partitas 2-4

Online scores:
Bach, Keyboard Partitas (BWV 825-30)
The contrapuntal, mathematical complexities of Bach's music tend to fascinate the most musical minds -- musica was not part of the number-oriented quadrivium for nothing. American pianist Murray Perahia turned to the study of Bach's music when he was recovering from a hand injury in the 1990s, and an obsession was born. At the end of my review of his first installment of Bach's partitas, I hoped that Perahia's latest hand-related miseries would soon end and he would record the other three partitas. Sometimes our wishes are answered, and the result has recently crossed my desk. For whatever reason, the second volume did not bowl me over nearly as much, the understated quality that can make Perahia's Bach so charming perhaps a little too studied, making for an overly plain interpretation.

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.


kishnevi said...

Wondering if you've heard Andras Schiff's new recording of the full set, which was released almost simultaneously by ECM.

I also bought the Perahia, but my ears seem to prefer Schiff, although I can't yet put my finger on the details that explain the preference.

Charles T. Downey said...

I haven't managed to listen to the Schiff recording yet but planning to, of course. I like Schiff's playing and his Bach, but I think Perahia is a better Bach interpreter.

Keith W Clancy said...

Simply explained - Schiff is live, the 4th and 6th Partitas as the second half of a live concert. He has played the works so many times and knows them so well that he makes some movements (the Capriccio at the end of the 2nd and the Sarabande of the 6th) sound as if they are improvised. For me Schiff is the man - inventive, funny, tragic, witty, intense, "romantic" even. By comparison to me Perahia is correct but a little dry. Good but not the amazing cumulative experience that Schiff provides. Unlike all other pianists I've heard do the Partitas, Schiff (and even his ordering of the whole set comes into this) makes the 6 Partitas one work, made of 41 separate but joined pieces.