Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
BWV Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV 903 [13:52]
Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826 [21:52]
Partita No. 6 in E minor BWV 830 [34:34]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. January 2007, Wörthsee, Bavaria.
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 13280-2 [70:34]
The text for this release announces that this is “BACH FOR THE 21st CENTURY - Roger Woodward presents the most exciting Bach since Glenn Gould”, and indeed, this CD has already been awarded the Deutsche Schallplatten Kritiks prize, which means it may well appear in your shop with one of those reassuring gold stickers. Woodward has played Bach all his life, though this is his first Bach recording. He surprised some by including Bach in his concert performance of Debussy and Chopin at the Radio Bremen concert hall in January 2007, but for me the biggest surprise was to discover how wide a range he has beyond the contemporary work by which I had previously recognised his name. One of my earliest CD purchases was a copy of the 1990 Etcetera double disc Woodward made, that of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories. He is also known for his championing of the music of Xenakis and others, and his discography is a remarkable document in its own right. Part of the package sent to me by Angela Boyd indeed contained modern piano music by Hans Otte and Peter Michael Hamel, but also included the Chopin Complete Nocturnes which will be put through their paces elsewhere on these pages. Angela Boyd’s own interview with Roger Woodward provides a number of interesting perspectives on what he thinks about life, music and the world in general, and has certainly helped gain a more rounded picture of the performer as a person.
Woodward sees Bach as a romantic composer, or at the very least an unproblematic partner to Debussy and Chopin in a single concert programme. Certainly, such a mix isn’t so very incredible within any recital, but in playing Bach from a perspective which allows for colourings and gesture which we associate with later composers Woodward goes against the tide of authentic performance practice, and pianism which lends from this school of interpretation. I’m not going to argue for or against either way here, and would only add that, by playing Bach on a piano, any musician is already on a losing wicket if intending to position themselves within the early music scene. My only concern would be in the results. To possibly mis-quote from some forgotten source: ‘play Bach like Brahms, and you are a dead man’, which would seem to suggest that we are all bound to play Bach like Bach. Anyone who plays Bach knows that the great man’s music can stand a great deal of monkeying around with before it starts turning into Brahms, and performers have been able to make Bach sound like Bach even while sounding like Glenn Gould or Sviatoslav Richter at the same time.
Some of my favourite Bach recordings of all time have been amongst the most romantic, so I approached this disc without trepidation. Before waxing too lyrical too soon however, I usually find it worth orientating myself with some earlier discoveries, and even though there is no overlap in repertoire I find the manner of playing Michael Studer exhibits in Bach pretty exemplary. It is direct and unpretentious, light in touch, and with a singing lyricism which is pretty irresistible in my opinion. Roger Woodward’s sound in this excellent recording is actually quite crisp, and his playing always conveys the utmost clarity. I have listened carefully to this CD several times, and find myself still on the fence about a few issues. Looking first at the Partita No.2, the playing frequently attacks the strings with no lack of weight, and in this way is comparable with Martha Argerich’s 1980 Deutsche Grammophon Bach disc. Her timings are also comparable in this piece, with only Woodward’s more ruminative Sarabande putting him about a minute longer, and a less tumultuous final Capriccio seeing Argerich cross the winning post about 45 seconds in the lead.
So much of one’s response to a recording like this will be a question of taste, so I’ll pin my colours to the mast first with one thing I’m less keen on. When playing fast, Woodward’s trills are so swift that it sound as if his fingers were vibrating even before hitting the keyboard, and doing that with something of a splash. This doesn’t feel musical to my ears, and while I can imagine these readings weren’t built for comfort, neither do I want them jabbing me like a hammer drill. This is something of the point of these recordings. You might imagine ‘romantic’ Bach to be the kind you could enjoy of an evening with your best fluffy slippers and the memory of a pre-ban pipe or cigar, but Roger Woodward’s performances are anything but the kind for relaxation. There is a high combustion intensity in the opening Sinfonia of Partita No.2, from which we are delivered with relaxed urbanity in the second section. The third section is swift and punchy, not really with the lightness and bounce of some, but with plenty of drive and an unstoppable sense of direction.
Roger Woodward plays his Bach as a composer as well as a pianist, and the sense of relationship and context between movements is as strong as that within the movements themselves. There is also a sense of structure to the programme which I’ll come back to later, but I have to express my admiration for the sense of improvisatory exploration which comes through in a movement such as the Sarabandes of both Partitas. It is something to have that fresh feeling of spontaneity in a live performance, but another altogether where a musician can cleave a lifetime of preparation to a sense by which the music almost seems to be invented on the spot. I also particularly enjoy Woodward’s treatment of the thinner two-part textures of the Tempo di gavotta in BWV 830 which is full of fun, and the Corrente, which, despite its swift movement, has a lyricism mixed with a walking jazz feel to the left hand and some eccentric flourishes like the one at 1:01 which sounds like it has a wrong note, but which is repeated later on at 2:05, so it must be right. In short, I like these Partita recordings. Roger Woodward has remained true to himself, and these are individual and at times individualistic performances which won’t float everyone’s boat, but I relish the sense of newness and the alternative view which Woodward gives of this familiar music. Angela Hewitt or Murray Perahia may give us a richer, perhaps smoother or more typically idiomatic ride, but I suspect these recordings, once heard, will nag at your subconscious and keep bringing you back.
I’ve left the Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue until last. This is a piece which is always a tough nut to crack on piano, and there is evidence of a few edits in Woodward’s recording. My problem is, I can’t make up my mind what to think about it. You trust your faithful reviewer to have an opinion one way or another on just about everything musical, but I sincerely hope you also trust they will tell you the truth. The truth is, I can’t decide whether I like this performance or not, and I also suspect that I’ll still be arguing with myself on the subject in ten years hence. My initial feeling was that the expressive gestures in the Fantasia were trying too hard, and that the thing didn’t really hang together I quite the way which would make it satisfying, to give it that sense of uneasily flowing continuity which struggles, but always wins through. For me, Woodward works the struggles continuously, with a kind of mighty reluctance to resolve even beyond the last note. The opening of the Fuga is grandiose, but the announcement of the parts like a hammer on anvil – impressive but rather unyielding. The tempo sways a little here and there, but it is also a tour-de-force, compelling as well as rather heavy in places. This is heavy music of course, and not to be approached with light and ethereal airy-fairyness, but I’m yet to be 100% convinced. While Woodward’s endings ‘fit’ with the rest of his playing throughout the Partitas, I’m not really sympathetic with the grand gestures which conclude each part of BWV 903. The final trill - nearly 20 seconds from inception to final turn - of the Fantasia is just too much of a good thing to be much less than a parody, and the final overly heavy note of the Fuga made me feel like Woodward was suckering us with a knock-out punch, and defying us to take it seriously. This is powerful playing in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon mould: the beauty is forceful and craggy, hidden, still malleable, sometimes even ugly in a non-pejorative sense – Bach taken beyond the romantic into territory more in tune with contemporary music or even Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, which goes beyond pretty much everything. There is however a key which can unlock some of the enigma in this performance, and you are offered it with the introduction to the Partita No.6. There is a kind of bridge which arcs between the Fantasia and the way Woodward plays this opening Toccata and its fugal development – BWV 903 in miniature. I may be inventing my own false house of cards, but I have the feeling Woodward the composer is at work behind the scenes throughout this disc from the first note to the last, and if you can hear the whole thing as a kind of concept album then the rewards increase to beyond the sum of its parts.
This is a difficult recording to assess in conventional terms, and I can make no guarantees that it will become a top part of your collection. I can however be fairly sure it will change your view of the ways in which Bach can be performed. As the text on the website says, this “goes further and beyond anything that might be considered orthodox or conservative … an organically continuing development which uses and incorporates all the possibilities that a first-rate modern instrument has to offer, just as Bach would have done if the available technology in his lifetime had allowed him.” My only absolute criticisms of this production are the silly typographical design which forbids the use of capital letters: an ugly and unnecessary complication, and the lack of information on the music in the notes, which only consist of an extensive and tedious puff on the career of the pianist. We’re not likely to be hiring him and have probably already bought the CD, so why the CV?