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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partitas Nos. 1-6, BWV 825-830 (c.1717-1723)
Masaaki Suzuki (harpsichord)
Rec October 2001, Kobe Shoin University Chapel, Japan
BIS-CD-1313-4 [2CDs: 81.02+80.18]


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By Bach's time keyboard instruments had come to dominate solo music-making, and since there were no recitals of the kind we know today, his fundamental keyboard style was a private one without regard to ostentation. The exact date of composition of his set of six Partitas is not known, but they were probably written before 1723, during his years at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen. They were published in Leipzig in the years after 1726, under the title of Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice), along with the sets of English and French Suites.

The Partitas are typical in their range and variety of dance or dance-like movements, with thematic material which achieves both unity and diversity. Although they have much in common each of them has its own special identity, brought by choices of key, particular dance forms and approaches of detail to individual movements.

In an important sense it is probably unfair to listen to all six pieces in sequence, since Bach almost certainly did not envisage this. For all Masaaki Suzuki's undoubted talent, he does not really achieve a different perspective in each case. But listen to any of the partitas with fresh ears, and the performance will please.

Tempi and articulation are pleasing. Just occasionally, as in the Courante of Partita No. 1, the rhythm can drag a little, and the same might be said of the slower tempo of the Sarabande that follows. To some extent these things might be perceived as a matter of taste, however, and in Bach, Suzuki possesses excellent judgement and deep understanding, as we know both from his keyboard discs and his marvellous cantata and passion recordings.

It is important to recognise the strengths and nature of the recorded sound. As ever with BIS, the sound is powerfully captured, clear and directly focused. But played at a 'normal' volume it is somewhat overpowering, larger than life as it were. Play the disc at a lower setting and everything seems much more natural and pleasing.

Since Partitas Nos. 4 and 6 are rather longer than their fellows, at 30+ instead of 20+ minutes, BIS have cleverly programmed the collection to allow all six pieces to be contained on two discs of more than 80 minutes each. This is thoughtful and commendable, while the packaging and insert notes are of an excellent standard too.

This set is probably the best solo disc Suzuki has yet offered us. Of the six performances my favourite is the great Partita No. 6, a substantial piece which takes the familiar dance movement sequence to new heights. The opening Toccata is a really challenging movement for all involved, a veritable tour de force, and this performance brings suitably virtuoso dexterity.

Whether you prefer this music played on the harpsichord or on the piano, the six partitas remain among the key works in the literature of keyboard music. The answer for the serious collector is surely to possess at least one recording on each instrument. And if it's the harpsichord you're particularly looking for, then you need look no further than Masaaki Suzuki.

Terry Barfoot


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