Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bach & Levit: Partita Animals

You walk in a room, your view of the gilt-framed paintings obscured by the crowd, some your friends, and others your enemies. The air is a haze of smoke, redolent of wine, beer, perfumes, powders and sweat. As you step further into the space, the gorgeous young thing at the harpsichord begins to play something insipid, hoping to impress the vapid young men gathered around the instrument. Why must this always happen? Why is it not possible to make an entrance accompanied by something worthy of your presence?

Pure conjecture, of course, but who's to say this sort of experience wasn't the impetus for J.S. Bach to come up with the spidery opening chord and dramatic beginning for his Partita No. 2? All I can say is that when I hear it, I sit up in my chair, a master of all I survey. However, not every performance of Partita No. 2 has that effect on me. As part of my preparation for reviewing Igor Levit's new recording of Bach's Partitas Nos. 1-6 I decided to focus on one of the six pieces and get to know it really well. So I made a playlist of more than a dozen complete recordings of No. 2, with a little lagniappe from the Swingle Singers's Jazz Sebastian Bach album thrown in for good measure.

As I listened, I started forming very definite opinions on how this music is best played. Naturally, like anything else open to interpretation, beauty will be in the ear of the beholder, but I do think that Bach should not be easy listening. Put another way, Bach is known for writing a large body of utile music, such as to accompany church services or festivals, or to aid in the teaching of music itself. However, I don't think he ever put quill to parchment with the hope of creating wallpaper. In fact, we know that Bach was using the Partitas to establish himself as a composer of keyboard works, being known mainly for his choral works at the time he published the first one. Making a strong statement would definitely be on his list of priorities with these works.

The first recording on my list was by the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and my first reaction was, "Wow, but no - too weird. Haunted house!" Gradually, however, I began to come around to it, and the harpsichord in general, embracing the weirdness. I've always found that instrument a little tough to take but for this project I wanted to really give it a chance. After all, the harpsichord was Bach's axe of choice back then. He completed the book of Partitas in 1730 and didn't hear a piano that he liked until 1747, when he took on the sideline of selling the newfangled keyboards for pioneering manufacturer Gottfried Silbermann.

Admittedly, the Landowska recording was a little rough and ready, being from the 30's and slightly distorted. In addition to Landowska, I also grabbed Ton Koopman's recording, which was certainly beautiful if a little straight laced in comparison. Finally I discovered Christiane Jaccottet's brilliant performance, which seems to find the perfect balance between sheer beauty, drama and strangeness all tied together with a slightly searching quality as if playing the music in the process of discovery. The recording is close but not clinical, revealing some of the mechanical noises of her keyboard, but not distractingly so. Listening to the three harpsichord recordings in my playlist pointed put a key interpretive choice: whether to spread or roll out that opening chord or to play the notes in unison. Landowska and Jaccottet both opt for the former and Koopman for the latter.

I do not know enough about it to understand why rolling the chord is optional, but I can say that I like it better in general, whether on piano or harpsichord. While there were some recordings I took to that didn't spread the chord, it's just a bolder statement and seems to put the partita on a different footing. So I had my harpsichord breakthrough thanks to this process, although listening to its brittle, metallic sound for extended periods still causes fatigue. But maybe that's as it should be. Are we supposed to sit and listen to all six partitas at once, with the endings running into the beginnings in unending stream of Baroque melodies? There's that wallpaper question again.

Speaking of which, as I compiled my list I came across the best-selling release by Simone Dinnerstein called Something Almost Being Said, which has music by both Bach and Schubert. While I have enjoyed some of her work, especially Night, her collaboration with Tift Merritt, I just can't tolerate her soft-edged, diffuse approach in this music. While I'm not an original instruments snob, I do think there is a point where a player can seem to be ignoring everything a composer ever hoped for their work. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," L.P. Hartley wrote and I don't think its a bad thing to allow some of that foreign-ness to exist in very old music. Something almost being said? I think not. I think Bach was actually saying something, and we should respect him enough to let the music do the talking.

For a great recording on modern piano, Glenn Gould is still the man. Stylish and dynamic, he manages to put a personal stamp on it while maintaining a clarity in the counterpoint that keeps you anchored. And you should hear what he does with that opening, putting a little hesitation between the first note and the rest of the chord, making a new sequence. While known as a bit of an eccentric, Gould had nothing on Julius Katchen's entry which is full of blurred passages, odd dynamics and rushed tempos. I think Katchen took more liberties than the Swingle Singers. Call it sloppy if you will, but the sense of ownership is captivating. Another fine recording is by Eldar Djangirov, known mostly for jazzy crossover stuff but whose stunning precision and expert pedal work do perhaps the best job of translating the qualities of the harpsichord to the modern instrument. Style to spare, too.

My playlist also includes David Korevaar, Martha Argerich, Andras Schiff, Roger Woodward, Lydia Gorstein, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, all of which have something to recommend them, as well as one smoothed out movement on harpsichord by Hermann Stinders, which does not. As for the Swingle Singers, their take is kind of charming and while I wouldn't want a whole album of it, makes for a nice palate cleanser.

So how does Levit do, shouldering his way into a crowded subway car of fleet-fingered, often imperious masters of the keyboard? Born in Russia in 1987, Levit has been playing since the age of three but waited until last year to make his recorded debut, first as a soloist on a live recording of Eric Tanguy's In Terra Pace, and then on his own album of late piano sonatas by Beethoven. The Tanguy album didn't make much of a splash (the music isn't terribly distinctive) but the Beethoven album was greeted rapturously. While I'm not going to investigate fully, from what I can hear he more than holds his own in another packed field, displaying astonishing technical assurance, lyricism and drama. His Beethoven sings.

He brings many of those same qualities to his Bach, playing the partitas in a manner that is unapologetically modern while nodding to Baroque style. His tempos may be more measured than some yet his well-defined rhythmic sense keeps things moving, acknowledging the parlor dances that give some of the movements their structure. He makes the most of the piano's dynamic range while avoiding an excess of romanticism. That said, a clue to his approach lies in a Schumann quote in the liner notes where he says, referring to Bach, "... I myself confess my sins to this lofty figure every day, while seeking to purify and strengthen myself through him." Levit has some of this interiority as well, giving the sense of a personal journey through the partitas, rather than just a display of virtuosity.

Throughout, Levit opts more for beauty than for some of the alien aspects of the Baroque approach, but without any sense of soft-pedaling (literally or figuratively) the work of a genius from almost three centuries ago. It's almost a high wire act on Levit's part, balancing all of these elements, and his sense of command is such that you never worry about him falling. This is an excellent recording and confirms Levit's place at the front ranks of today's keyboard artists. He makes a number of subtle, intelligent decisions and executes them with flair. If I would like to see him use more imagination when it comes to record-making I also understand his need to get some major repertoire on the books at this stage of his career. In the end, while Jaccottet might have the edge with Bach himself, I don't doubt that Levit would also get a nod of approval from the old master as he entered that imagined party seeking friends and recognition.

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