Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826 [20:57]
French Suite no. 5 in G major, BWV 816 [18:53]
Toccata in E minor BWV 914 [6:49]
Toccata in D major BWV 912 [11:22]
Jean-Léon Cohen (piano)
rec. 2015, Forgotten Records Studios, Rennes, France

I am unfamiliar with the French pianist Jean-Léon Cohen, but from the accompanying booklet notes to this release (in French only), I learn that he was born in 1934, and studied with Vlado Perlemuter at the Paris Conservatoire. His career has been based in the city of Rennes, where these recordings were made at the beginning of 2015; he was a professor at the Conservatoire de Rennes from 1959 to 1998. He has been an enthusiastic advocate of the music of Henri Dutilleux, Olivier Messiaen and Frank Martin. Two years ago he recorded the complete piano works of Martin for Forgotten Records, and that release has been reviewed by my colleague Jonathan Woolf.

The noble grandeur of the Sinfonia of the Partita No.2 in C minor makes a fitting and impressive opening to this Bach recital. I’m pleased that Cohen chose this one as, together with No. 6, it is my favourite of the set. He makes more of a contrast than many pianists do between the majestic Grave adagio and the Andante that begins in bar 8. His build-up to the fugal section is very effective, displaying a formidable grasp of the structure and architecture of the music. There’s an air of serenity and resignation in the Sarabande, and the Rondeaux which follows is crisply articulated and pointed. A rhythmically buoyant Capriccio rounds things off in thrilling fashion.

The French Suites are smaller scaled than the Partitas, and again Cohen has opted for the most popular, No. 5 in G major. It’s a carefree and joyous work, and in Cohen’s hands this sunny disposition permeates the music. His is an unfussy approach and ornamentation, when applied, is tastefully executed. Very effective is the energetic Courante, followed by a pensive Sarabande, which restores the balance. To the Gavotte, Bourée and Gigue he brings an exuberance and playful quality.

Cohen brings to the two Toccatas flexibility and rhythmic freedom; after all, their basic character is one of improvisation. They also confront the player with technical challenges, and these are engaged with admirably. In the fugal sections, the polyphonic strands are teased out and articulated cleanly and precisely, with Cohen keeping a firm grip on the more free-flowing passages at all times.

I am very taken by the piano sound: it is fairly bright and bold and ideal for this music, allowing detail of the lines to be discerned. The acoustic confers a sense of warmth and intimacy on the proceedings, similar to that found in Rosalyn Tureck’s Partita recordings for VAI (VAIA 1040). Cohen is prone to hum along to the music at times, but I don’t find this too much of a problem – after all Glenn Gould, one of the greatest Bach players, made similar vocal contributions.

Stephen Greenbank