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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825 [18:26]
Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826 [20:02]
Partita No. 3 in A minor BWV 827 [21:01]
Partita No. 4 in D major BWV 828 [31:50]
Partita No. 5 in G major BWV 829 [22:26]
Partita No. 6 in E minor BWV 830 [34:13]
Jean-Léon Cohen (piano)
rec. 2015-17, Rennes
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR40-41C [71:20 + 77:44]

Jean-Léon Cohen was born in 1934 and studied in Paris with Vlado Perlemuter and Maurice Hewitt. At the age of twenty-five he was appointed to a teaching position at the Conservatoire in Rennes where he remained for over 40 years but parallel to his distinguished pedagogic position he collaborated for many years with Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen and with conductors such as Serge Baudo, Florian Hollard, his old teacher Hewitt and numerous others. As well as concerto and solo engagements, he has remained loyal to chamber music and performs as a member of the Trio Marchesini.

The Bach Partitas were recorded in Rennes between 2015 and 2017 though the bulk – Nos 1, 3, 4 and 5 – come from sessions made in March and April 2017. The studio was rather dry and has little resonance and one can hear a bit of the piano’s action given the mike seems to have been quite close; the result is an unvarnished sound that allows for great clarity to emerge – and that extends to Cohen’s occasional humming along with the music. It’s not as vocal a sound as Glenn Gould’s and is perhaps at its apogee in the opening Sinfonia to the Second Partita, which he clearly loves.

Cohen was in his early eighties during this recording assignment but his tempi are not noticeably slower than that of players half his age. His mechanism is still in fine estate, even though there are, inevitably, moments of tension throughout the Partitas: for example, the Corrente of the First Partita causes problems and I’m not sure if it’s an edit that disrupts the rhythm or not, whilst there are slips in the Gigue. Given, however, that these must be largely straight-through performances Cohen demonstrates considerable control. His playing throughout is unmannered and direct. The artful play of left and right hand and a sense of colouristic wash is seemingly anathema to him: the kind of playfulness that Schiff explores in, say, the Allemande of the Third Partita is countered by Cohen with the straightest of responses.

There is, in this concentrated plainness, a kind of stoic identification with the music: a lifetime’s association with Bach reflected in allowing the music to unfold unimpeded by any suggestion of artifice, ornamentation, exaggerated pedaling or colouristic dialogues between hands. It’s an approach that runs the risk of being thought static, given that the dance imperatives that underlie the music are largely not indulged. He takes a much more realistic approach to the Sarabande of the Fourth Partita than Schiff, one might think, given the latter’s rather over-personalised rubati, but there are moments, such as in the Allemande of the Fifth Partita or the Fantasia opening of the Third, when aesthetic preference and sound quality mean that Cohen sounds very plain-speaking indeed.

The booklet includes an essay on the Partitas in French and English and a biography of Cohen – but only in French. There are reproduced letters from Henri Dutilleux, Olivier Messiaen, Perlemuter, and Hewitt and an evocative photograph of Perlemuter’s Class of 1953 with the young Cohen close to the Master.

Jonathan Woolf



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