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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826 [19:30]
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 [10:08]
Partita No. 6 in E minor BWV 830 [35:33]
David Fray (piano)
rec. 24-26 September 2012, Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0709442 [65:32]

David Fray’s reputation has been established with warmly received recordings such as his Schubert album (see review), one each of Bach and Mozart piano concertos, and a complementary programme to this one which has Boulez nestling between the Partita BWV 828 and the French Suite No. 1. The Schubert programme is beautifully played but I found myself in a battle at times, urging him to get on with it, the extra layers of respectful awe weighing just a bit too heavily on the music. With Bach he also frequently errs on the slow side but finds plenty of reasons for doing so, and I struggled less as a result - in fact finding my ears opened refreshingly to new nuances.
This programme is one shared two-thirds by Martha Argerich’s legendary Deutsche Grammophon recording, including as it does the Toccata BWV 911 and Partita No. 2 (see review). You would expect a certain amount of drama with Argerich, but her Bach shows a sensitive side which can stand as an example to all pianists, with rhythmic security allied to dynamic shading and touch which creates just the right amount of expression and excitement. This is still one of the best Bach piano recordings I know. To remind myself of a different approach, I had another listen to Roger Woodward’s Partita No. 2 (see review), which has a more explosive sense of danger. Woodward’s Bach is more deliberately a ‘Bach for our times’, with added windblown drapes and the noises of distant war: an experience which can be savoured, but which does I fear create its own little cul de sac.
David Fray plays with a romantic touch, but is a good deal less extravagant with his gestures than Woodward. Take the quiet two-part counterpoint which develops the opening Sinfonia of the Partita No. 2. You would hardly mistake it for someone imitating a harpsichord, but its flowing lines early on are a passage through dynamic growth which connects organically to the final Andante. Something odd happens to the stereo image at 3:53, the right channel dipping a little, returning between 4:15 and 4:16 which suggests a wee drop-in between two different sessions. Lyrical flow is the expressive medium for the gentler movements in this Partita, with natural sounding but at times quite pronounced rubati. This is very pianistic Bach, but gorgeous in terms of tone and touch. Compared with Angela Hewitt it seems awash with acoustic and pedal, but the manner of performance and the environment seem perfectly suited. It’s not all roses and perfume either, with a crisp Rondeau to wake us up before a rousing Giga which has plenty of swing and pace.
The Toccata in C minor BWV 911 is given the full emotional range by Fray, his witty second section completely wring-footing us for the deeply poignant passages which follow. The Toccatas are another Hewitt favourite, but after a dramatic opening the second section does sound more like a warm-up transition in her case, the subsequent counterpoint a serious frown rather than sudden remembrance of things lost and a tear unbidden. With plenty of lively contrast further on Fray’s BWV 911 is a terrific performance, despite some minor mechanical ticks coming from somewhere when the pedalling becomes more energetic.
The opening of the Partita No. 6 is where Fray departs more than many, in the almost dreamy way he moves through the runs in the introduction. This relatively leisurely tempo is continued throughout, and he comes in not far under a minute and a half slower than Hewitt. There is method in this approach however, and Fray is able to point out longer melodic lines, providing a different sort of emphasis to some of the harmonic shifts and opening our eyes to some extra lyrical potential in unexpected places. This isn’t the ultimate way to perform this opening Toccata, but I have to say I do rather like it. As with the second partita, this is a mixture of poetic lyricism and lively contrast, just as it should be. You wouldn’t exactly say that Fray’s Courante and Air are exactly the crispest ever, though the acoustic can take some of the blame for a certain succulent richness throughout this recording. They tick all of the right boxes while being more extrovert than Hewitt’s more confiding interpretations. The Sarabande from both Fray and Hewitt has a similarly ruminative quality, coming in at roughly the same timing. Hewitt arguably gets deeper into the emotional layers of the music here, perhaps because with the differences in recorded perspective the colours of her instrument are given more chance to dip into subtle quietude, where Fray’s sound is always ringing out, even when at its lowest ebbs. The final Tempo di Gavotta and Giga are our reward for delving into these grief-stricken realms, the first cheering us up, the second filled with inspiring counterpoint, its rising intervals lifting us up, their subsequent inversion bringing us back to earth but all the wiser.
Fans of David Fray will relish this Bach programme greatly, and those who love a bit of Bach on the piano will almost certainly enjoy what they hear - I know I did. There are aspects of taste which will appeal more to some than to others. If you become itchy with a piano set in a large acoustic then this is certainly grander than many, though there is plenty of detail in the sound and the balance between presence and airiness is found very well indeed. The occasional extra-musical blemish aside, this recording has to be given a firm recommendation, especially if you like your Bach rich and creamy, and nicely balanced with a bit of spice, but not too much.
Dominy Clements