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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825 [20:06]
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 [21:30]
Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827 [20:40]
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828 [27:37]
Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 829 [22:16]
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830 [28:48]
Huguette Dreyfus (harpsichord)
rec. 1983, Aeolian Hall, Tokyo.
HERITAGE HTGCD 292/3 [62:18 + 78:43]

A genuine pioneer of the harpsichord, Huguette Dreyfus has been noted for her performances of unexpected repertoire on her instrument in the past, as her recording of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos shows. Along with many other recordings for the label, her Bach Partitas were originally released by Denon on 3 CDs, and the booklet has an anecdote of a recent conversation between Dreyfus and Orhan Memed in which the performer recalls her visit to Japan, the recording being just small part of an occasion filled with teaching and concerts. Further information on the Partitas is provided in a booklet note by our very own Gavin Dixon.

Recorded in a relatively intimate but not overly dry acoustic, the harpsichord sound for this set of Bach’s Partitas is crisp and detailed rather than rich and opulent. This is a sonic perspective to which it is very easy to adapt, and is only really worth commenting on when comparing with other versions, to which we’ll come later.

Dreyfus doesn’t often go out of her way to emphasise dramatic aspects of this music, which means measured tempi and limited elasticity in terms of expressive pushing and pulling of speeds with phrasing. There are indeed a very few movements, the Corrente of BWV 825 for instance, that could arguably have done with a little more forward momentum, but there is no denying the convincing style that brings its own life and vibrancy to these performances. There is for instance no lack of drama in the striking opening to Partita No. 2, and the drive in the final section of this substantial Sinfonia is infectious. She lets the following Allemande speak for itself, creating expression with the slightest of delayed inflection here and there in the right hand. The slow and elegant Sarabande is likewise lacking in real liberties, the music breathing through the kind of subtle flexibility which is almost an intuitive or essential part of the music – that which makes the performance human rather than mechanical.

While drama and excitement may not be at the forefront of Dreyfus’s performances there is plenty of zip in her more animated movements, the final Capriccio of BWV 826 being a case in point. The Burlesca and following Scherzo BWV 827 is also pretty wild, and there is no shortage of contrast in these performances. A favourite with this recording is the Partita No. 4, BWV 828, with the music helped by the fine resonance of the D major key signature, a more relaxed world of sound compared to the C minor of BWV 826. The low thrum of the Allemande is gorgeous, and you can hear Dreyfus’s distinctly French character coming through in the more exploratory sounding Sarabande and formal nature and ornaments of the Menuet. Dreyfus is not one for making jokes, but there is some wit in the way she takes on something like Bach’s quirky theme for the Gigue that rounds off BWV 829. The great Partita No. 6 is a highlight of any such set, and this performance is very satisfying indeed, from the grand Toccata to that remarkable Sarabande with its moments of acute dissonance and exquisite resolution, and the darting arrows that point in all directions with the final Gigue, Dreyfus has the measure of them all and never slacks in intensity of imagination.

The value of this release is in its making widely available a significant recording of Bach’s keyboard Partitas in a world in which piano recordings of the same works now outnumber those on the instrument for which they were originally composed. As far as alternatives go I’ve always has an affection for Gustav Leonhardt’s recording, now most widely available on Virgin’s Veritas label. These performances are roughly contemporaneous with Dreyfus’s, and they share a quality of melodic expressiveness and measured reserve which has an atmosphere of sheer refinement. Trevor Pinnock on Hänssler Classic uses a bigger sounding instrument and is truly excellent if you seek something grander sounding. Masaaki Suzuki on the BIS label often takes slower tempi than many but also has plenty to offer, contrasting movements with different stops and captured in generously beefy sound. These are just a few leading choices among many in which Huguette Dreyfus can be considered a strong contender. Some may prefer a weightier harpsichord sound, but these recordings are very natural sounding and the perspective suits the interpretations at every level.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Stephen Sillitoe



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