The 50 greatest Bach recordings – part 3

Gramophone Fri 30th September 2016

The finest recordings of Bach's music, from the English Suites to the Goldberg Variations

Bach

All of the reviews printed below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

English Suites Nos 1-6

Murray Perahia pf

(Sony Classical)

Murray Perahia’s English Suites (his first Bach recordings) originally appeared as full-price individual releases, beginning with Nos 1, 3 and 6 in 1997, followed by Nos 2, 4 and 5 in 1998. Now programmed in numerical order, the performances have more than worn well. No matter how full-bodied and luminous his sonority, Perahia is a line player first and foremost, achieving clear, colourfully diversified textures mainly through finger power and hand balance. When I reviewed Nos 2, 4 and 5 ten years ago, I noted Perahia’s telegraphing such textural shifts via slight ritards or little holdbacks at cadential points, but now I admit that I was nitpicking, rather than the pianist! Perahia’s Sarabandes are firmly etched and the Courantes propulsive. Ornaments are adventurous and he brings rhythmic drive to the quicker movements. The superb sound adds further value to an attractively priced reissue that collectors seeking the English Suites on the piano ought to seriously consider. Jed Distler (November 2008)

 

Inventions. Sinfonias

Till Fellner pf

(ECM New Series)

While Bach may have conceived his Inventions and Sinfonias as teaching pieces, Till Fellner’s intelligent and characterful pianism consistently embraces the music behind the method book. Varied articulations and well conceived scaling of dynamics imbue the pianist’s natural propensity for generating singing lines with shapely expression. Cogent examples of this include the E major Invention’s subtle off-beat accentuations between the hands, the C major’s unpressured dialogues, the D minor’s incisive vitality, and the F major Sinfonia’s easy bounce and gentle spring. The often protracted D minor Sinfonia retains its melodic poignancy at Fellner’s headlong pace, although his tapered phrasing of the F minor Sinfonia’s theme grows predictable with each repetition.

Purists may also take issue with the tonal haze and mist resulting from Fellner’s liberal pedalling in the E major Sinfonia or, in the G major French Suite, the pianist’s soft-grained Allemande and Loure. However, the Sarabande’s simple eloquence plus the crisply pointed Bourrée and Gigue more than compensate. All told, the Inventions and Sinfonias in Fellner’s hands rank alongside the catalogue’s strongest piano versions (including Gould, Schiff, Koroliov, Hewitt and Peter Serkin), and benefit from ECM’s superior, state-of-the-art engineering. Jed Distler (September 2009)

 

Organ Works

Masaaki Suzuki org

(BIS)

Of all the current doyens of modern Bach performance, Masaaki Suzuki knows no limits to his explorations. This is a dazzling recital (from a musician better known as a director-harpsichordist) discerningly assembled and held aloft by three great pillars: the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565; the Pièce d’orgue, BWV572, with Bach whisking the French 17th century from under its own nose; and, to conclude, the great Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV548 (the Wedge). If one’s reflexive default at the prospect of an organ recording – even an exquisitely curated Bach one – is one of dispassionate or nonchalant resistance, this recording is as likely to turn ears as any made.

Along the way, in a deftly balanced presentation of strikingly contrasting essays, Suzuki offers beautifully turned, reflective and buoyant readings of sui generis ‘concert’ works. The Pastorale, with its exquisite musette-like opening, whose subsequent C major movement trips along in a manner organists seem universally reluctant to pursue, is simply a pearl. Each of the four movements is sweetly devotional in nature, skilfully preparing the way for the highly distilled and contemplative variations on the chorale ‘O Gott, du frommer Gott’. The seasoned reflective qualities of Suzuki, heard to such memorable effect in his complete cantatas series, are reawakened in the stunningly voiced combinations of sounds from the Schnitger/Hinz in the Martinikerk in Groningen – one of Holland’s finest Baroque organs, restored to its former glory by Jürgen Ahrend during the 1970s and ’80s.

Unusual here, also, is how an emphatically non-organ-playing reviewer can effortlessly alight on the kinds of malleable Bachian conceits enjoyed habitually in the composer’s concertos, keyboard suites and vocal works. Great instrument aside, this is largely down to the judicious alchemy of Suzuki’s perception of how architecture and local colour can collide to mesmerising effect. The Fugue from the above-mentioned D minor is a case in point: the glistening parallel motion over the pedal at 3'20", often a bloated gesture, enticingly holds back to set up the rich-textured gravitas that follows. Inexorable momentum here is born of fervent authority, a virtuosity of combined effects without gratuitous excess.

The Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, written late in Bach’s life as a condition of membership of Lorenz Mitzler’s Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences (hence the work’s proliferation of contrapuntal wizardry), can often leave the listener cold. Perhaps not surprisingly, Stravinsky was beguiled by the possibility of its intertwining lines in his inventive homage of 1956, with its supra-polyphonic interpolations. Suzuki’s performance will persuade you that Bach’s unsurpassed technique never obfuscates the essence of the chorale; its Christmas provenance is fragrantly atmospheric. The close, with its ingeniously compressed lines and the composer’s outrageous sign-off, literally spelling his name (B is B flat and H is B natural), is celebrated in some style by Suzuki.

But it’s the gripping drama and involvement in the large-scale works that remind one of Karl Richter in his most durable organ-playing legacy on Archiv from the 1960s (funnily enough, until recently, only available in Japan). Richter’s captivating direction and intensity, complete with an almost hypnotic abandon, is a touch more measured in Suzuki’s hands but no less effectively communicated.

The E minor Prelude and Fugue is the greatest tour de force here, and arguably Bach’s most ambitious single creation on the organ. Truly symphonic in grandeur, the work is harnessed impressively by this exceptionally experienced Bachian. Granite-like blocks of intensely chiselled harmonic progressions starting at 2'38" and building to the last at 5'48" are studiously laid down, as if for posterity, and yet there’s an underlying immediacy and restlessness in Suzuki’s rhetoric which leads to thrillingly choppy waters in the Fugue. Only Samuil Feinberg’s arrangement on the piano has lifted this piece completely out of its safe organ istic sphere – but I think it now has a partner in grandeur, flair and emotional risk. And it’s on the organ. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (October 2015)

 

Partitas

Igor Levit pf

(Sony Classical)

‘When in trouble, play Bach’ – wise advice from Edwin Fischer to a pupil. He was making an observation to a fellow performer about Bach’s restorative and reorienting powers; no doubt, but perhaps alerting all of us to the inspiring breath we can draw from the fertility and humanity of a composer whose imagination and ‘habit of perfection’ (John Eliot Gardiner’s phrase) drove him to discover in music just about everything. For the keyboard player, an engagement with Bach is a constant from childhood, and it becomes essential to daily life. For Beethoven, for Mozart in his maturity and for Chopin, it was the same. ‘Practise some Bach for me,’ Chopin used to say to his departing pupils as they went through the door. Yet no music is more demanding to realise in sound, nor quicker to reveal inadequacies of perception.

Which brings me to Igor Levit – and not a moment too soon, you may think. The distinction of this set of the Partitas, following his Sony debut recording of the last five Beethoven sonatas (11/13), will establish him in the minds of many, I’m sure, as a major artist. He played those sonatas as though he had lived with late Beethoven a long time and had perceived and understood everything. His versions of the six Bach Partitas show a comparable address and maturity. Above all, they are fresh and joyous.

How demanding they are. On the title-page of the collected edition of 1731, brought out as his Op 1 and a self-publishing job, Bach said he had composed them ‘for music lovers, to delight their senses’. They soon made a great noise in the musical world but earned him, too, a reputation for their technical difficulty: as if, as a contemporary put it, the composer had expected ‘what he alone could do on the keyboard’. An early player of them, said to have been accomplished, described them as ‘making me seem like a beginner each time’.

Complex music – but not complicated. Levit’s achievement is to miss nothing of their scope and variety as compositions while conveying what it is that makes each one a unity, not an anthology, demanding to be performed complete. Where other practitioners offer regular accents and a perhaps over-cautious traversal, tethered to the notes, Levit never fails to project a commanding overview – an aerial perspective, almost – in addition to the detail of phrasing and articulations and the nooks and crannies of melodic lines. Only the most gifted interpreters manage both. It energises his performances and makes them seem to inhabit a state of grace. And it contributes to our enjoyment in another way, drawing us on as we listen and keeping us curious as to what lies around the next corner. A first impression might be of quicker tempi than usual and of a fleetness that challenges us to keep up. Yet one quickly registers that nothing, in fact, is rushed or driven too hard – not a phrase or a paragraph, nor even (most important) the execution of an ornament.

I like very much Levit’s ornaments and embellishments in general. They are always a living feature of the line, arising from within, not stuck on from without. In addition they show awareness of performance practice and what may be appropriate in each instance, with decoration added to ‘second times’ discreetly and with an air of spontaneity, and never to excess. Levit has a sure judgment of when to leave well alone, as CPE Bach advised when discussing this aspect of his father’s music. The majestic Sarabande of No 1 in B flat (disc 1, tr 4) gets a minimum of graces in its repeats – barely noticeable indeed. But there needs to be some if ‘second time through’ is to have any sense; otherwise why do it?

The playing of the Gigues in the Partitas – and the final Capriccio in No 2 in C minor – invite the performer’s virtuosity as a welcome guest to the feast. Levit doesn’t disappoint. Bach developed these movements to make thrilling conclusions, just as he had made the opening of each work something imposing and unexpected. That was possibly his most original contribution to the suite of his time: there’s a Praeludium in No 1, a three-part Sinfonia in No 2, a French Overture in No 4 (the D major), a Praeambulum in No 5 and a grand Toccata and Fugue in No 6 (E minor). They help to make each partita announce itself as something ambitious and a unity, not just a succession of dances. With Levit, if you start at the beginning, you go on to the end; no question. Bach mediates between the French and the Italian styles in the course of the six works, and Levit doesn’t miss a trick. Finally, let me praise his cantabile playing (a singing style), which Bach extolled to his students as a constant aim.

Harpsichord or piano? Forget it. Or rather, let us have both. If on the piano, however, which isn’t a second-best, I incline to those exponents who are not apologetic about their instrument and at the same time show awareness, relish even, of what the best harpsichordists have achieved, from Gustav Leonhardt to Andreas Staier (I mention two exceptional players who have made complete sets). As to other pianists, I would cite Richard Goode, on a par with Murray Perahia; maybe András Schiff as well. Levit’s version has added to the discography of this inexhaustible music with distinction and I believe it will run and run. There’s nothing about him in the booklet – as if to say, it’s not about me, the music is enough. But if you haven’t come across him before I can report that he’s of Russian-German descent (shades of Sviatoslav Richter) and is 27 this year. I wonder what he’ll do next. Stephen Plaistow (October 2014)

 

Partitas, BWV825–30

Trevor Pinnock hpd

(Hänssler Classic)

Hanssler’s eclectic approach to its ongoing complete Bach series is either one of its greatest strengths or one of its strongest irritations, depending on how you look at it. Is offering the English Suites on the piano and the Partitas on the harpsichord a commendably broad-church approach or just haphazard? The massive Bachakademie edition (of which this is Volume 115) is not a project noticeably concerned with period instruments, yet here they have persuaded Trevor Pinnock, founder of one of the world’s first and finest baroque orchestras, the English Concert, to return to the recording studio as a solo harpsichordist for the first time in many years.

Well bravo to them. The evidence of these discs is that Pinnock’s absence from the new release lists has been far too long. From the opening bars of the First Partita’s leisurely Praeludium, it is clear that this is a master harpsichordist, a player whose seemingly effortless command of his instrument allows him to express his innate musicianship without any need for overstatement or gratuitous point-making. There is nothing laboured or studied about his performances of these demanding works; his faultless finger technique allows him not only to step with confidence through a virtuoso minefield such as the Gigue of the Fifth Suite (his are the tightest trills I have heard), but perhaps, more important, to make a gently flowing legato the starting-point of his interpretation. It is an approach that could run the risk of being boring were it not that Pinnock’s ability to place every note precisely and sensitively – helped by an instrument (or is it the recording?) which takes the edge off each note’s attack – makes it come across as wonderfully natural and unaffected. Bach, after all, can do the rest.

Tempos, too, have a sense of rightness about them; the slightly excitable Pinnock of old has now become a fine and subtle judge of forward motion, shown to greatest advantage perhaps in his perfect reading of the giant Allemande from the Fourth Partita, a piece so hard to steer between the hasty and the leaden. And he can sparkle when he needs to; try out the fizzing Corrente of the Sixth Partita.

These are performances of enormous distinction, then, and it is a pleasure to welcome Pinnock back after such an absence. Let’s hope that he will soon catch up lost ground and record more of his instrument’s mainstream repertoire. Lindsay Kemp (August 2000)

 

Toccata in C minor, etc

Martha Argerich pf

(DG)

The reissue of Martha Argerich’s recordings, their reappearance in this or that format, testifies to the unique and enduring nature of her magisterial temperament and musicianship. This Bach recital, first issued in 1980, reissued in DG’s Galleria series and partially celebrated (the C minor Partita) in Philips’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century, is now revived on DG’s The Originals. Admirers will of course have heard Argerich in the Second Partita, on the wing, so to speak, in a superlative live performance dating from 1978-79 (and with the Bouree from the Second English Suite for an encore) on EMI. Yet even they will surely admit that these slightly later studio recordings carry an extraordinary authority and panache.
Argerich’s attack in the C minor Toccata could hardly be bolder or more incisive, a classic instance of virtuosity all the more clear and potent for being so firmly but never rigidly controlled. Here, as elsewhere, her discipline is no less remarkable than her unflagging brio and relish of Bach’s glory. Again, in the Second Partita, her playing is quite without those excesses or mannerisms that too often pass for authenticity, and at 2'14'' in the Andante immediately following the Sinfonie she is expressive yet clear and precise, her following Allegro a marvel of high-speed yet always musical bravura. True, some may question her way with the Courante from the Second English Suite, finding it hard-driven, even overbearing, yet Argerich’s eloquence in the following sublime Sarabande creates its own hypnotic authority. Her final Gigue is a triumph of irrepressible vitality yet, throughout, you are reminded of the comprehensiveness of Argerich’s Bach, the way his alternations of robust and interior musical thinking are so tellingly and vividly characterised.
It only remains to add that the dynamic range of these towering, intensely musical performances has been excellently captured by DG. Bryce Morrison (Awards issue 2000)

 

Toccatas

Angela Hewitt pf

(Hyperion)

As Angela Hewitt tells us in her exemplary accompanying essay‚ Bach’s Toccatas were inspired by Buxtehude’s ‘stylus fantasticus – a very unrestrained and free way of composing‚ using dramatic and extravagant rhetorical gestures’. For Wanda Landowska‚ they seemed initially ‘incoherent and disparate’ and it takes an exceptional artist to make such wonders both stand out and unite. Yet Angela Hewitt – always responsive to such a teasing mix of discipline and wildness – presents even the most audacious surprises (the close to the G major‚ the chromatic grandeur in the Adagio from the F sharp minor‚ etc) with a superb and unfaltering sense of balance and perspective. Time and again she shows us that it is possible to be personal and characterful without resorting to self­serving and distorting idiosyncrasy. Everything is delightfully devoid of pedantry or over­emphasis; few pianists have worn their enviable expertise in Bach more lightly. How scrupulously she observes Bach’s moderato qualification in the C minor Toccata’s Allegro fugue‚ how delicate and precise her way with the same fugue’s return. Again‚ in the F sharp minor Toccata everything is meticulously graded‚ and in the dazzling D major Toccata‚ which so fittingly closes her programme‚ not even Bach’s most ebullient virtuosity can induce her to rush; everything emerges with a clarity that never excludes expressive beauty. Commenting that it is impossible to know the precise chronology of the Toccatas‚ Hewitt plays what she calls ‘an arbitrary sequence’‚ modestly aiming for a ‘satisfactory recital’. As a necessary corollary‚ her performances could hardly be more stylish or impeccable‚ more vital or refined; and‚ as a crowning touch‚ Hyperion’s sound is superb. Bryce Morrison (October 2002)

 

The Well-tempered Clavier

Edwin Fischer pf

(Naxos)

Edwin Fischer’s 1933-36 HMV set of Bach’s 48 was the first recording by a pianist of the set, and it remains the finest of all. Fischer might well have agreed with Andras Schiff that Bach is the ‘most romantic of all composers’, for his superfine musicianship seems to live and breathe in another world, ether or ambience. His sonority is as ravishing as it is apt, never beautiful for its own sake, and graced with a pedal technique so subtle that it results in a light and shade, a subdued sparkle or pointed sense of repartee that eludes lesser artists. Again, no matter what complexity Bach throws at him, Fischer resolves it with a disarming poise and limpidity, qualities as natural as they are profound.

All this is a far cry from, say, Glenn Gould’s egotism in the 48, or the sort of performances that can make genius a pejorative term. Fischer – a blessedly naive artist who told his students to forget ‘the material, working world and be on intimate terms with trees, clouds and winds’ – showed a deep humility before great art, making the singling out of one or another of his performances an impertinence. Impossible, however, not to mention in passing his ethereal start to the set (that light, bouncing staccato above a singing bass-line in No 1), or the disconsolate, phantom yet ordered voice he achieves in No 4. The contrapuntal flow of No 7 – initially grand, then reflective and finally free-wheeling – is realised to perfection, and what a virtuoso play of the elements he recreates in No 15!

Turning to Book 2, you could hardly imagine a more seraphic utterance in No 3, later contrasted with the most skittish allegro reply. The list goes on indefinitely, dissolving the supposed barriers between one form of music and another: ‘baroque’, ‘classical’, ‘romantic’, even ‘impressionist’, become terms of convenience rather than accuracy once you have heard Fischer’s Bach. He did, indeed, possess a touch with ‘the strength and softness of a lion’s velvet paw’, and I know of few recordings from which today’s generation of pianists could learn so much; could absorb by osmosis, so to speak, his way of transforming a supposedly learned tome into a fountain of limitless magic and resource.

Here, then, is Fischer at his most sublimely poised and unruffled, offered at Naxos’s bargain price in beautifully restored sound. Bryce Morrison (May 2001)

 

The Well-tempered Clavier

Angela Hewitt pf

(Hyperion)

Listening to Angela Hewitt’s latest thoughts on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier alongside her late-1990s Hyperion cycle (11/98, 7/99), it appears that her interpretations haven’t changed so much as evolved, intensified and, most important, internalised. This perception is enhanced by a closer sonic image, plus the leaner, more timbrally diverse qualities of Hewitt’s Fazioli concert grand that contrast with her earlier recording’s mellower, more uniform Steinway. Yet I readily credit Hewitt’s pianistic prowess for more acutely differentiated legato and detached articulation this time around, together with a wider range of melodic inflection. This adds considerable textural dimension to fugues such as the A minor Book 1 and G minor Book 2, whose close counterpoint is extremely difficult to voice and clarify.

The same goes for C major Book 1 and D major Book 2 Fugue stretti, and the C minor Book 2 Prelude’s bolder colours. Hewitt’s uncommonly brisk and elegantly poised G sharp minor Book 2 Fugue has acquired conversational light and shade. While some listeners may prefer the first A major Book 1 Prelude’s austere grace to the remake’s more animated yet slightly arch dynamic taperings, Hewitt now imbues the fugue’s breathtaking cross-rhythmic motion to brasher and wittier effect. Rubati hinted at earlier re-emerge in fuller, more purposeful bloom: compare both readings of the E flat major Book 1 Prelude and the E major Book 2 Fugue, for example. Perhaps one could pigeonhole Hewitt I as characterised by dance, while Hewitt II mainly celebrates song. While both versions hold equal validity and stature, Hewitt’s remake ultimately digs deeper, with more personalised poetry. Jed Distler (June 2009)

 

Goldberg Variations

Murray Perahia pf

(Sony Classical)

The roll call of Goldbergs on disc amounts almost to one first-class version per variation. I cannot think that there’s a single recording (and by now I must have heard at least 30) that doesn’t identify some minor detail unnoticed by others. My last Gramophone review celebrated Angela Hewitt’s sense of colour, and the passing months have done little to dim the appeal of her fine Hyperion recording. Now Murray Perahia enters the fray with a version that isn’t just colourful, or virtuosic, or thorough in terms of repeats, but profoundly moving as well. Here one senses that what is being played isn’t so much ‘Bach’ as an inevitable musical sequence with a life of its own, music where the themes, harmonies and contrapuntal strands await a mind strong enough to connect them. This Perahia does with sovereign command, and his perceptive programme notes help illuminate the complexion of his thinking.

Rosalyn Tureck was the first recorded Goldbergian to take the structural route and her EMI/Philips set remains among the most cogent of older alternatives. And while Glenn Gould achieves formidable levels of concentration (especially in the second of his two commercial recordings for Sony), his gargantuan personality – utterly absorbing though it is – does occasionally intrude. Perahia brooks neither distraction nor unwanted mannerism. He invests the Goldbergs with the sort of humbling gravitas that Schnabel brings to, say, Schubert’s B flat Sonata. Yes, there are fine-tipped details and prominent emphases (sample the wildly accentuated bass-line in Variation 8), but the way themes are traced and followed through suggests a performance where the shape of a phrase is dictated mostly by its place in the larger scheme of things.

The opening Aria is crystalline, lively in tone and with a distinctly singing bass-line. The first repeat is rather softer, whereas the first repeat of the first variation incorporates various added ornaments, a trend that registers time and again through the course of the performance. Middle voices are brought to the fore in Variation 3 and where, in Variation 4, Hewitt opens boldly and softens for the first repeat, Perahia reverses the process. Variation 7 is crisp and tripping, 16 opens to firmly brushed arpeggios, and I loved Perahia’s pianistic gambolling in the snakes and ladders of Variation 23. Hewitt is amazingly skilful in the contrary motions of 21 but Perahia keeps a firmer hold on the principal theme and in Variation 25 his classic, sculpted lines conjure a level of purity reminiscent of Lipatti (in Bach generally, that is – not the Goldbergs in particular, which Lipatti never recorded).

Perahia never strikes a brittle note and yet his control and projection of rhythm are impeccable. He can trace the most exquisite cantabile, even while attending to salient counterpoint, and although clear voicing is a consistent attribute of his performance, so is flexibility. He makes points without labouring them, which is not to deny either the brilliance or the character of his playing. Like Hewitt, he surpasses himself. It’s just that in his case the act of surpassing takes him that little bit further. A quite wonderful CD. Rob Cowan (December 2000)

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