Magazine article Gramophone

GRAMOPHONE Collector: A BACH MISCELLANY 1: Harriet Smith Listens to Solo Bach Played on an Array of Instruments

Magazine article Gramophone

GRAMOPHONE Collector: A BACH MISCELLANY 1: Harriet Smith Listens to Solo Bach Played on an Array of Instruments

Article excerpt

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions ... here we have some tremendously well-intentioned discs but the results are, shall we say, variable. The common denominator is JS Bach who, more than any other composer in history, can take multifarious approaches and work on a wide variety of instruments. After all, performing his music on the piano is in effect an act of transcription; indeed, one of my favourite performances of his music is Art of Fugue played by the New Century Saxophone Quartet.

Of the discs here, the most obviously 'authentic' is Alessandra Artifoni's account of the English Suites on harpsichord, a modern-day copy by Tony Chinnery of a two-manual Mietke from 1702 (a make of which Bach is known to have been fond). It's a fine, characterful instrument, recorded with immediacy. The booklet is lazy--Not even listing suite movements, let alone proffering a performer biography. But the playing is certainly not and she relishes the different character of each suite without resorting to extremes. The Second Suite, with which she opens, has a lovely conversational Allemande and an unfettered Gigue. The E minor Suite (No 5) opens with a joyously full-sounding Prelude; and if her Sarabande is a little ponderous, the two Passepieds that follow are well contrasted. The Sixth Suite is a highlight, from the grandeur of its Prelude via the experimentalism of the Sarabande's harmonies to a Gigue in which she patently relishes Bach's wayward harmonies and buzzy trills.

Moving to the piano, the Australian-born pianist Daniel Martyn Lewis talks of his early experiences of listening to Bach by the sea in south-eastern Australia and of how he has been influenced by the sound and technique of the harpsichord in his own playing. That perhaps explains why there's not a legato line in his entire second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier and why devices such as agogic pauses are very much the norm. He's at his best when there's a lot to occupy his fingers--for instance in the toccata-style D minor Prelude or the effusive G major Prelude. But elsewhere articulation can be fussy and he lacks the sense of inevitability that is found in the best performances. The searing dissonances of the Prelude in F minor are here diminished by the distracting desynchronisations of the hands, losing a sense of line. He also tends to overplay accents, which can make for awkward-sounding fugue subjects--as in the G minor and A flat Fugues.

Turning to the French Suites of the Chinese pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei, it's a relief to find those sustained lines I missed in Lewis's performances. Each suite emerges with a very distinct character without needing to resort to extremes. Just take the Fourth Suite: her Allemande has a reassuring quality to it, its pedal points evident but not overdone, while the Courante has a gentle bounce and is nicely varied on repeats; after a veiled Sarabande we get a playfully knowing Gavotte, an ebullient Air and a pleasingly feisty hunting-style Gigue. She's unafraid to use the full resources of the piano and occasionally her pedalling sounds slightly over-generous (for instance in the Courante of the Second Suite or the Allemande of the First), though this could be the acoustic. A good account, then, if not one on the same level as Perahia's Award-winner (DG, 11/16).

Finally to two Japanese artists, both hugely admired exponents of their chosen instruments. The marimba player Kuniko wisely focuses on the Cello Suites and Solo Violin Sonatas, works that would seem to lend themselves more readily to transcription than, say, the more intricate textures of the keyboard Partitas. …

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