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CD: Buywell

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1
Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV825 [22:02]
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV826 [25:03]
CD 2
Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV827 [22:17]
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV828 [32:30]
CD 3
Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV829 [25:53]
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV830 [35:10]
Nicholas Parle (harpsichord)
rec. 11-12 April; 31 August, 1 September 2002, Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Australia. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 6405 [3 CDs: 47:14 + 54:57 + 61:12]
Experience Classicsonline

These are the six Partitas that form the first part of Bach's Clavierübung, which was published by Bach between 1726 and 1730 while at Leipzig. Perhaps because the composer's first such publication, he seems to have been cautious; only in 1731 did he collect the six pieces (BWVs 825 to 830) and advertise them as vehicles for keyboard practice (Clavierübung) consisting of preludes and five or six dance movements - a format that had been familiar for several centuries.

What's more, some of the movements in these Partitas had previous incarnations: the two Minuets from Number 1 are to be found in a manuscript containing pieces by various members of Bach's family, the Kleine Clavier-Stücke. From the original (1725) version of the G major sonata for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1019, come the Courante and Gavotte of Number 6. In the same year, 1725, Bach began composition of his Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena; this contained the first versions of Partitas Number 3 and 6.

The model for compositions such as Bach's Clavierübung was not new: in the last decade of the previous century his predecessor at Leipzig, Johann Kuchnau (1660 - 1722), had published a highly successful Neuer Clavier Übung. Indeed, Bach's set may even have been (partly) in tribute to the older musician. In any case, the originally French format of four or more dance suites (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue) probably preceded by a Prelude had been independently established in German-speaking musical circles by Froberger by the middle of the seventeenth century.

By and large this is the sequence that Bach followed. But each one departs to some extent from the base: no two of these Partitas are the same in form or sequence. Number 1 has two Minuets before the closing Gigue, Number 2 begins with a short Sinfonia and ends with a Rondeau (misspelled Rondeaux in the booklet) and Capriccio. Number 3 has a Fantasia at the start and intersperses a Burlesca and Scherzo before the Gigue. The fourth Partita begins with a fast Ouverture and has an Aria between its Courante and Sarabande and a Minuet between the latter and the Gigue. Number 5 begins with a Præambulum and has both a movement in Tempo di Minuetta and Passepied before the Gigue. The sixth starts with a fugued Toccata and again has an Air as fourth and Tempo di Gavotta as sixth movements.

Yet careful listening, which Australian-born Nicholas Parle makes natural yet essential, reveals what all this variation really implies: this is very original, inspired and thoughtful music. Bach is not reproducing structures according to a formula. Still less - despite their name - is he really reducing the work to mechanical exercise pieces. We can be sure that Bach fully intended these choices and orders - at the least for dramatic, thematic and tonal tension and integrity.

Such pieces as the Fantasia the start of Partita 3 [CD.2 tr.1], however, are typical of Parle's very solid and inspired approach to this music. It's businesslike and efficient without a whiff of the perfunctory; sensitive and thoughtful without romanticism; driven and purposeful without a hint of hurry. On the one hand, each movement is treated as a gem in its own right. On the other his playing unobtrusively places it in the wider context of the Partita (a synonym for Suite, after all) as a whole. Listen to the rhythmic intensity coupled with unalloyed delight in the fifth Partita's brief Courante [CD.3 tr.3], for example. It acquires greater meaning when followed by Parle's equally restrained yet taut approach to the Sarabande that follows. And the arresting dotted quavers of the Tempo di Minuetta.

Although perhaps not conveying the detached spring of a Verlet (Philips Duo 442559); certainly not the wayward imprint of a Gould, Parle's style is closer to Suzuki (Bis 1313 and 1314) and never lacks vigour or energy … listen to the way the third Partita's Courante [CD.2 tr.3] unfolds and, as befits the origins of the movement, then never loses steam or breath. The same superlatives apply to the way Parle effortlessly manages a sense of forward motion and serious intent, yet an intent to enjoy and celebrate life, in the Gigue in the same Partita [CD.2 tr.7]; and, for that matter in the Ouverture of Number 4. But never suggests rush or haste … listen to the end of the Courante in Partita Number 4 [CD.2 tr.10]; here Parle brings out the French as well as the Bachian idiom. Yet he does so without extraneous gestures to draw attention to his highly accomplished style - as is the case throughout these three CDs. Splendid. For evidence of Parle's level of technique, the sixth Partita's Toccata [CD.3 tr.8] almost says it all … balance, attack, poise, accuracy and a steely yet transparent momentum fully in accord with the harpsichord's timbre.

In his attention to phrasing and structure, Parle has a gift of conjuring up the movement and vitality of Bach's music. And it's consistently done with the unselfconscious aplomb and gravitas of a performer like Tureck herself, whose performances on Doremi (7826), although of some age now, have that same unobtrusive weight. Parle quietly commands our attention. Once we've inclined our heads to listen, we don't go back to what we were doing, so to speak: we always involuntarily turn to face … less Parle as interpreter; but to concentrate wholly once more on Bach as genius.

The harpsichord played by Parle is by the Australian William Bright after a Ruckers original from the early/mid seventeenth century. It's a powerful instrument with a rounded yet distinct, somewhat reticent, sound profile that's well suited to the precision and impact of Bach's music. The acoustic is close - but intimate, rather than enclosed.

The liner notes are informative, though they lack, perhaps, more ruminative examination of the non-technical import of these very uplifting, memorable, influential and inspiring works by Bach. There are literally dozens of good recordings of these works - on modern as well as period instruments. Pinnock on Hänssler Classic (92115) is a good first choice. And for a contemporary and fresh account with which you could happily live this latest offering from ABC Classics should certainly get a look in at that level.

Mark Sealey


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