Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Partita No 1 in B-flat major BWV 825
Partita No 2 in C minor BWV 826
Partita No 3 in A minor BWV827
Partita No 4 in D major BWV 828
Partita No 5 in G major BWV 829
Partita No 6 in E minor BWV 830
Eleonor Bindman (piano)
rec. 2020/21, President Street Studios, Brooklyn, New York
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DELOS DE3597 [2 CDs: 159]
Reviewing recordings can too often descend into a kind of Best in Show contest and I sometimes need recordings such as this one to remind me that often the recordings that give most pleasure are ones with fairly obvious weaknesses that aren’t ever going to be an exclusive top recommendation. Of course, with works like the Bach keyboard partitas there is never going to be a single recommendation. Suitably humbled by the inexhaustible greatness of Bach, I can say that, issues aside, I have listened to these recordings a lot. With long stretches of music such as the complete Partitas, it helps to have a personable guide and Bindman is certainly that. There is a refreshing absence of dogma but she is no pianistic plain Jane either. Anyone who has come across her immensely enjoyable recording of the Brandenburg Concertos arranged for two pianos (The Brandenburg Duets on the Grand Piano label) will already know what an imaginative Bach player she is.
In her self penned programme notes to this new release, the Latvian born US pianist, Eleonor Bindman, makes a point about performers performing the opening prelude of the B flat partita too fast and too mechanically. In theory I agree with this point especially with regard to ornaments such as trills needing to be seen as expressive gestures rather than homogenised technical features. Unfortunately for Bindman, her performance doesn’t really support her argument as the results sound a little heavy handed and almost in places a little uncertain. Even more awkwardly, she complains of people taking the following Allemande too quickly to fully articulate its interlocking figures – and then proceeds to play it much quicker than, for example, Igor Levit. Even Blechacz who is extremely fast takes only a few seconds less than Bindman to navigate the concluding Gigue where Bindman laments others turning it into a mere vehicle for virtuosity. Even at top speed, I found Blechacz better exemplified Bindman’s view that this movement “should be an exercise in precision and control, not speed”.
Whilst I am looking at caveats, it has to be said that Bindman likes sturdy, robust rhythms which can sometimes set the toes tapping but on other occasions such as the Menuets of the B flat partita can become overly rigid and a little leaden footed. In the same partita, her efforts to catch the stateliness of the Sarabande sometimes shades into stiffness
It is unfortunate that most of the reservations I have concerning this set are centred on the first partita as things improve markedly from the C minor partita onward. Bindman exhibits a real and suitably Baroque sense of the theatrical which makes the opening Sinfonia of this second partita a treat.
Bindman is thoughtful and interesting on the subject of the impossibility of observing all the repeats in these works. Whilst it might be psychologically intriguing to experience the truly massive works that would result if all the repeats were to be taken, I think she is right to see the choice of whether to include a repeat or not as an artistic choice and broadly speaking I found her choices convincing.
Not quite so much her emulation of Igor Kipnis’ ‘reductionist’ approach to ornamentation of repeats, particularly when it means that the balletic sarabande of the A minor partita is presented initially completely shorn of decoration. Remove them by all means on repetition but not first time around. In this movement, above all, the ornamentation in the score is integral to its melodic character and not some kind of garnish. Moments such as this one are a pity since her taste when it comes to embellishing repeats is generally impeccable. Even with this movement, the issue of decoration is only part of the story as Bindman’s performance otherwise is a joy, elegantly balancing dignity and an almost mischievous sense of play, the dance rhythm that underpins everything clearly audible.
An unalloyed pleasure of this set is the lovely Bösendorfer piano used and how well it is recorded. More than that, Bindman’s recreative imagination is clearly stimulated by the different timbres possible from her piano.
Bindman seems to have a real affinity with the concluding Gigues where her calm, relaxed manner delights in clarifying the many threads of the textures rather than dazzling us with her finger technique. Throughout the set, virtuosity is at the service of the music. One of the strengths of these performances is how good Bindman is at bringing before us the individual essence of each dance. It is almost like introducing characters in a play.
The G major partita shows her qualities in the best light. A gentle pulse runs through every movement with just the right amount of formal swagger balanced with a dry, understated wit. This is the kind of recording I would play to people who think Bach too severe. It doesn’t short change his genius but illuminates it with joy and, above all, affection.
This is solid, unflashy Bach played with intelligence and good humour. Is it perfect? No but is it a most agreeable listen? Most definitely. More than two and half hours in Bindman’s genial company fly by most pleasurably.