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Roger Woodward in Concert
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes Book 2 (1910-13) [35:59]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
3 Mazurkas Op. 59 [10:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830 [36:24]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. 6 January 2007, Sendesaal Bremen.
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 133242 [80:23]

This is the kind of release which comes along all too rarely, beautifully documenting a unique moment, and a point of musical confluence at which all of the energy lines seem to be pointing in all of the right directions at once.
 
Fans of Roger Woodward will need no encouraging to seek out and purchase this recording, and no-one with an attraction to piano music and the vibe of a live performance should be without this release. The booklet goes into the chain of events leading up to the concert, also being a glimpse into the strange sorts of paths musicians take, based on a sprinkling of luck and opportunity, and the bringing together of special musical qualities with those who can recognise them and act on that recognition. In other words, this is not a recording over which to chew comparisons of repertoire or to pick over interpretative minutiae. With a glorious recording which gives perfect seating at a very special concert, the price of all-time entry is small indeed.
 
I’ve admired Roger Woodward’s Debussy before (see review), and the qualities which make his studio recording so special are all in evidence in this live performance. The original concert programme included the Estampes, and it’s a shame we have to miss these due to space on the single disc, but this Préludes Book 2 is filled with magic and stunning colours. Woodward’s touch at the keyboard turns the piano into something majestic and intimate, orchestral and almost unbearably lonely, fantastically fluid and fearlessly funny, all within the split-second contrasts Debussy has in his writing throughout his incredible masterpiece. This is by no means a supplement to the studio recording, and while there are similarities the response of the instrument and the environment create a new package of genuine thrills. Wilfried Schäper’s booklet notes describe this performance “as if in one long breath”, and indeed, one forgets that this is a collection of individual pieces. Woodward’s performance becomes a grand tone poem in which familiar characters emerge to greet us, and those we thought we knew so well form from the mists of the imagination in new and sometimes surprising guises - all of them very happy with their awakening and the fine clothes they have acquired.
 
Roger Woodward’s Chopin is represented by a fine recording of the Nocturnes (see review), and an even more fine chamber version of the Second Piano Concerto (see review). His 3 Mazurkas Op. 59 are filled with poetry and gorgeous effects, about as far away from Polish folk music as one could imagine, which was of course part of Chopin’s intention. It seems a little unfair to sum these up as ‘light relief’ between the intense experience of the Debussy and the grand finale of the Bach, but they do serve this function very well, with their open melodic shapes and ever-tweaked but comfortingly familiar harmonies. Woodward seeks out these interesting variations of cadence with an exploratory, even ruminative character, using a full range of rubati to turn each piece into something far more than a dance, and in the case of No. 3 in F sharp minor taking us into fascinating worlds of impressionistic abstraction.
 
Woodward’s Bach has always created a lasting impression, and those who have heard his Well Tempered Clavierwill know what I mean. If anything the single disc release which includes the Partita No. 6 (see review) is even more strikingly individualistic, and this performance came shortly after the studio recording was made, and takes what might be seen as ‘extremes’ of this version a stage further. In this case we can relish the Sarabande for a good extra three minutes as there is an additional repeat, and another notable difference is the swiftness of the final Gigue, which slices minutes off the studio version while still just managing to hang together. The booklet notes point out how “the adrenalin of live performance functions as legal doping with astounding results”, and you may not like the cascade of notes which the Corrente has become there is no denying the power of the musicianship in this Bach. The Sarabande in this instance takes close to 10 minutes, but it ‘belongs’ in this performance like cheese in a rarebit. You could no more tear it away from its surrounding movements as see it as anything other than the intensely pulsating centre of gravity around which they must revolve. This is Bach which uses the piano in a modern way, drawing on the sonorities of Debussy rather than approaching it as the kind of performance Bach might have known. Those who prefer a more ‘authentic’ starting point - and I have nothing against these by the way - will probably struggle with many aspects of this performance, but to my mind this heightens aspects of Bach’s sensuality and his relevance in today’s concert halls. We can thank goodness have our cakes and eat them both, and they can both be equally delicious.
 
There are a few noises which remind us that this is a live concert, with a few distant coughs and some extra thumping of the pedals at extreme moments, as well as ecstatic applause after each composer’s contribution. These are not too disturbing, but in any case it is worth putting up with a few minor blemishes for such a special recording. This is not an everyday library recommendation, but one of those uniquely special discs without which your collection would be all the poorer; and we don’t want that now, do we?
 
Dominy Clements
 

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