Bach: Partitas Nos. 2 & 6 (CD review)

Also, Toccata in C minor. David Fray, piano. Virgin Classics 50999 070944 2 2.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a “partita” is basically just a set of variations, which in the eighteenth century and Johann Sebastian Bach became a suite for solo instrument. In the case of Bach’s partitas, he wrote three of them for violin and six for harpsichord; on the present recording young French classical pianist David Fray plays two of the harpsichord partitas on the piano.

First, what you have to understand about Bach’s partitas is that he wrote them, in his words, “to refresh the spirits of music-lovers.” Although Bach modeled them in part on the then-popular French dance suite, he departed from the format in sometimes writing music for them that had nothing to do with dancing. Instead, we get six or seven highly original, often highly ornamented movements in each partita, sometimes lyrical, sometimes whimsical, sometimes bright and cheerful, sometimes moody and melancholy.

Second, you have to understand that Fray’s playing is equal parts brilliant, virtuosic, traditional, playful, and eccentric. Critics have compared him in this regard to the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, with whom Fray shares many characteristics, including a love of Bach and a penchant for showmanship.

Anyway, the program begins with the Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. It comprises six movements: A Sinfonia, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Rondeau, and Capriccio. Fray attacks them with vigor and enthusiasm, yet communicates much nuanced feeling as well. The pianist has said, “We shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging the expressiveness of Bach’s music; it’s not as though the Romantics had a monopoly on expressivity.” Fray furnishes a performance that is lively and dazzling in the faster movements to complement a refreshingly poised demeanor in the slower sections. These are not gut-wrenchingly sentimental readings but thoughtfully considered ones. The Sarabande, for instance, comes off with a kind of serene introspection rather than just being another stately dance, while the Capriccio displays a sprightly, driving gait.

Next, we get the Toccata in C minor, BWV 911, which stands in stark contrast to the partitas around it. Whereas the partitas sound generally upbeat and refreshing as Bach said, the Toccata is much more weighty and dramatic. Thus, it offers an effective counterpoint to its companion works on the disc. Still, Fray doesn’t keep it melodramatic, preferring to present its opposing themes in a serious yet rhythmically dynamic manner. It’s a most pleasing result.

The program ends with the Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830. It comprises seven movements: A Toccata, Allemande, Courante, Air, Sarabande, Tempo di Gavotta, and Gigue. Again, Fray jumps directly into the fray, so to speak. As he also says, “I try to make music like a conductor, not just as a pianist.... The piano constitutes a way of getting nearer the heart of the music. How do you balance the voices? How do you find a progression in a movement? How do you put the polyphony in place?” Certainly, he has found answers to these questions, as his interpretations are quite easily ones hard to forget.

Partita No. 6 is, indeed, the highlight of the set. The music sounds inspired, and Fray’s firm grasp of the music is evident in every note. Much of the work is moving in its sensitivity, and Fray’s approach to it is heartwarming, to be sure. The centerpiece is the Air, here a folklike dance that Fray pursues energetically, almost too much so. Yet one cannot help admiring and enjoying the infectious appeal of the presentation. This is not Bach for fogies.

Virgin did a good job recording the music at Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris, in 2012. A rather close-up piano provides ultimate detail. There is a beautiful glow provided by the lightly reverberant hall acoustic, which together with an excellent transient impact delivers a most-realistic piano sound. It’s one of those reach-out-and-touch-it affairs that seems as though the instrument is in the room with you.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa