BACH: 6 Partitas, BWV 825-830 – Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano – Decca 478 2163 (2-CDs), 53:29; 78:58 [Distr. by Universal] **** :
Recorded between February and December 2009, the set of Six Partitas (edition 1731) of Bach by Vladimir Ashkenazy (b. 1937) continues to extend a virtually unbroken line of musical development by this fine virtuoso whose musical sympathies remain boundless. Throughout the individual dance pieces, we find a freshness and spontaneity of affect that resist formulaic approaches to these contributions to Bach’s keyboard practice, since Bach himself took standard dance forms and systematically raised them to a new level of expression. If Rameau were an inspiring spirit of the age, Bach added to the French influence both German and Italian dance types that mix freely to coalesce into an international “anatomie” of figuration and rhetorical device. The Sarabande alone–especially in the D Major Partita–gained a new, chromatic, and poignant expressivity in Bach that few Baroque masters could have compounded when they first established their own forms.
I find the Steinway piano reproduction itself (from Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk) extremely genial, crisp without over-brightness and intrusive reverberation. The Allemandes from both the B-flat Major and C Minor Partita proceed with stately confidence, intimate and free. Ashkenazy’s legato flows evenly without sentimentality, and his non-legato phrases–say, in the Menuets of the B-flat and D Major partitas–do not compete with those of Glenn Gould. The quick imitations in the Courante of the C Minor prance in delicate colors, galant and limpidly articulate. The Rondeaux and Capriccio from the C Minor–the only such designations in the entire set–allies their unfettered spirit and performance to aspects of the English suites. The A Minor Partita relaxes whatever tensions drive the C Minor, the dances seemingly derived from medieval, rustic forms, especially the Burlesca and Gigue. Several of the movements resemble two- and three-part inventions. The Corrente emerges as the most audacious moment of bravura, its metrics askew and its series of parallel runs in constant motion a true test of stamina and sonic balance. Muscular energy informs the last two movements of the A Minor, a tour de force in the art of defying gravity on every level.
The D Major and E Minor reign for sheer monumentality, the former opening with a thickly textured French Overture demanding Ashkenazy’s symphonic colors. The ensuing fugue challenges the mechanical to become poetical. The D Major Allemande appears quite other-worldly, expansively delicate and emotionally urgent at once. A rambunctious Courante leads to an aria from German comic opera. The Gigue presents us a series of cascades in contrapuntal strategy, learned and vivacious simultaneously. The imposing Toccata of the E Minor Partita likely could stand on its own as a model for the Romantic articulation of noble concepts in keyboard practice. Ashkenazy projects its mazy chromatic motions without sag, the line taut and eminently expressive. The Corrente flies by in a blur of exquisite figuration, pert, whimsical, eminently playful. A virile Air yields to the famed Sarabande, whose “Tristan” chord appears in the midst of a passionate reverie. The Gavotta has its own dexterous demands, and the final Gigue proffers complex and pungent incursions into an otherwise “polite” dance form.
The most architecturally audacious Partita No. 5 in G Major seems an extended variation on triple time in various degrees of speed and articulation. The pointillist Tempo di Minuetto utilizes hemiola to arbitrate ¾ and 6/8 meters. The Praeambulum sets the tone, a brilliant toccata in broken figures and exuberant runs. Gem-like triplets infiltrate the Allemande, whose rhythm manages to make the piece sachet in wry gestures. Ashkenazy’s breezy account of the Corrente spices the accents with Handelian fervor, the world of Scarlatti humor, too, not far away. Annotator Peter Williams aptly likens the Sarabande to a flute duet. The high-stepping, galant Passepied might be the very model for Debussy’s own contribution in the Suite Bergamasque. Finally, liquid staccati mark Ashkenazy’s Gigue, whose bubbles and points of light blaze with affection and a lucidity of style quite contagious to those who want our Bach intelligent, assertive, and musically adept.