BACH: Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825; Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829; Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830 – Murray Perahia, piano – Sony 88697443612, 69:26 ****:
Murray Perahia, performing at the Rundfunkzentrum Berlin (10-15 December 2008 and 4-7 April 2009) on a modern Steinway, makes exquisite sense of the partitas from Bach’s Op. 1 (1725-1730), published at the composer’s own expense. Their soft reliance on French and Italian models from the dance infiltrates the entire set of six partitas, which appeared en masse in 1731. The easy gait of Perahia’s Italianate Corrente from the opening B-flat Partita displays a thorough ease and facility of motion, unhurried but lilting, arched, polyphonically articulate in all parts. If Bach intended these gracious dances as “keyboard exercises” (i.e., Klavier-Uebung), their innate, fluid vocalism transcends the medium of mere etude. Increasingly, Perahia assumes the esteemed mantle of his worthy predecessor, Horszowski, in the matter of Bach interpretation. A delicacy of taste, a nice sense of melodic contour, and a complete control of his dynamic palette defines Perahia’s keyboard style. The two Menuets, following a most exalted Sarabande, flutter with dragonfly wings. The quick crossing of hands in the concluding Gigue occurs with a deftly lithe application, a ravishing exercise of technique that delights in its own acrobatics.
The 1730 Partita No. 5 projects an altogether more aggressive virtuosity, its opening Praeambulum exerting a series of upward scales and brilliant runs in lively figures. Triplets that imitate enchanted droplets of nectar urge the extended Allemande forward, still indebted to the spirit of the dance. The ensuing Corrente oozes with brio, a singing tone crowning any number of internal smiles and breezy turns. The dotted rhythms of the Sarabande, too, trip with stately elegance and crystalline poise. The Tempo di Minuetto continues in daintily staccato figures fertilized by cross rhythms. Was it this Passepied in minuet style that inspired Debussy’s equivalent movement in Suite Bergamasque? The pearly Gigue develops two fugue motifs with a sure, fleet hand that eschews pedantry and heavy hearts.
The Partita in E Minor (1725) may be the earliest of the set, but it is no less an ardent showpiece in technical prowess, the scale of which rivals some of Bach’s extroverted organ works. The opening Toccata affords Perahia large arches of sound, a lulling inner-pulsation, and a central section that reminds of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with its fanciful cadenzas. The Allemande projects several “sliding” harmonies and cascading effects, which Perahia manages in strict canonic form. Quick syncopations mark the Corrente, whose jabbing impish figures might be the source of much of what we find in Saint-Saens. If the pert Air were orchestrated with flute, it would fit neatly into the B Minor Suite. A plethora of decorative figures inhabits, if not encumbers, the majestic Sarabande, which as played by Perahia suggests a crystal chandelier suspended in space. Bach’s Tempo di Gavotta accedes to the French taste for two and threes in the rhythm, even as it may have inspired parts of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. The intricate Gigue that concludes the suite retains a rather somber and severe cast, more a study in rapid canonic imitation than a celebration of some former sea-shanty. Perahia’s rendering of this potent movement makes us appreciate its fascination for anything like Busoni, always a connoisseur of complexity for its own sake.