Bach Keyboard Partitas Nos 2, 4 & 5
Faced with this level of musicianship, there seems little point in revisiting the ‘plucked strings or hammers’ debate, save to recall that, yes, the harpsichord’s tonal properties have a unique validity in Bach and, yes, a secure knowledge of baroque performing practices is essential for the effective realization of his works. But of course there is far more to Bach than the performing conventions of his day, and to ignore the many piano recordings of his music that grace the current
Richard Goode approaches this music with the insights of a performer steeped in Mozart, Beethoven and classical culture in general. His Bach, like Mieczyslaw Horszowski’s, has a profound, self-communing quality, though Goode’s technical command of the notes – his sense of contrapuntal perspective – is second to none. He brings a rare sense of gravitas to the Fourth Partita’s noble Allemande, drawing the unmistakable thematic connection – in the first half of the movement (from 0'27'') – with the St Matthew Passion’s ‘Erbarme dich’. He occasionally de-synchronizes chords to heighten a harmonic effect, but his pedalling is judicious and his employment of dynamics (as opposed to facile tone colouring) reveals a profound understanding of phrasal and contrapuntal relationships.
As with Alfred Brendel in Haydn, so with Goode in Bach: expressive implications are explored without recourse to ego-centred gesturing. And yet so much seems new. I had never thought of the opening of the Second Partita’s Sinfonia as a distant precursor of the opening Maestoso from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 111, but that is how it sounds here. The key is the same and the mood is very similar, most notably around the sorrowful descent from 0'30'' (into track 8). Not that Goode labours the point: the mobile Andante is quietly pointed, the fugue that follows, joyfully – though never aggressively – exuberant. Goode plays an urgent but tonally rounded Courante; his Sarabande is limpid; his Rondeaux nimble and capricious. The Fifth Partita works beautifully (the Allemande, especially), with all voices fully operational, but perhaps the finest performance of all is of the Fourth Partita. Angela Hewitt has suggested that the Sarabande’s opening flourish is like a question that Bach subsequently answers (in the following bars). Goode makes the point more vividly than any other pianist I know, excepting Rachmaninov; his skilful handling of the multi-faceted Praeludium shows an impressive mastery of musical transition, and he exhibits a Schnabelian impetuosity in the Courante. Repeats are in generous supply throughout, and the sound is rounded and realistic.
CD rivalry is strong, especially from Hewitt herself (more forthright than Goode, though perhaps less subtle), the pointillist Glenn Gould, and the decidedly pre-Gouldian Rosalyn Tureck. Andras Schiff is strong on elegance and Wolfgang Rubsam tackles the problem of styles by employing finger techniques of the period, plus the ‘elements of rhetoric, inegalite, the structures of the strong and weak with a given pulse, and metre’, with amazingly individualistic results.
I mentioned Horszowski because Arbiter’s recent all-Bach Horszowski recital includes performances of the Second and Fifth Partitas that, while technically less secure than Goode’s, inhabit a parallel intellectual climate. Like Gould, Rubsam and Tureck, Horszowski should be heard; but were I to review one of their discs and use Goode for comparison, I would deem this new recording an essential alternative – indeed, in the Fourth Partita, as the top recommendation.