BACH: Partitas (BWV 825–830) – Igor Levit, piano – Sony Classical (2 CDs)

J. S. BACH: Partitas (BWV 825–830) – Igor Levit, piano – Sony Classical 88843076302 (2 CDs), 76:07, 74:57 [8/25/14] ***** : 

Johann Sebastian Bach served as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen until April 1723, when he was released in the good graces of the Prince to become the Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Here he continued his work in the field of vocal music intended for performance in the church; over the next several years he copiously composed cantatas – often at the rate of  one per week! And though his former employer, Prince Leopold, continued to reward him with commissions, Bach was becoming increasingly frustrated with the work and the often cool reception his cantatas had been getting from his employers in Leipzig. He had a great desire to gain acceptance as a composer of works other than of a liturgical nature, and he’d been writing a set of new keyboard works when the news reached him in September 1726 that Prince Leopold had just welcomed a new son. At the news of the birth of the Crown Prince Emanuel Ludwig, Bach seized the dedicatory opportunity available to him, and inscribed the forward to his First Partita in celebration of the new birth. It appears that he’d planned the publication of the complete set of Partitas for some time now, and the happy circumstances made it easy for him to bring his plan to fruition.

The young Russian pianist Igor Levit has made quite a splash on the classical scene, winning or medaling in a number of international competitions; this disc is his second on the Sony Classical label. His first disc surveyed the late sonatas of Beethoven, and that excellent collection was nothing short of a tour-de-force of pianistic performance. This survey of the Bach Partitas continues that good work; Levit offers the pieces subjective, articulated readings that cast these oft-heard works in an almost entirely new light. Throughout the individual Partitas, his use of subtle variations in tempo helps give the works a unique identity, and his playing has an expressiveness and virtuosity that is almost unmatched among his contemporaries. The slow movements are particularly delicate and beautiful.

Sony has given us a remarkably good recording here, achieving just the right balance of intimacy and intensity. In my usual fashion, I ripped the disc as an uncompressed FLAC and played it back through JRiver Media Center and an outboard DAC – the sound was truly exceptional, even from a lowly 16/44.1 Red Book compact disc. In terms of sound alone, this disc is near-reference quality, and offers an impressively realistic aural impression of a grand piano in your listening room.

Igor Levit’s Bach may not suit all listeners; he does take some liberties with the material, but his playing has a freshness and originality that easily transcends any petty quibbles. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better modern traversal of the Partitas. Very highly recommended!

—Tom Gibbs

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