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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828 (1726-31) [30:18]
‘Italian’ Concerto in F major, BWV 971 (1735) [12:19]
Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004 (1720/ arr. piano Ferruccio Busoni, 1897) [16:47]
Federico Colli (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20079 [59:42]

Glenn Gould was not so objective and focused on the notes that spirituality completely eluded him; listening to his recordings, 37 years after his death (can it really be that long?) it seems obvious that their consequent transcendence didn’t arise by accident. When asked about his personal faith he famously remarked “Yes, I believe in God. BACH’s God”. It was this wonderful line that came straight into my head when I read Federico Colli’s extraordinary ‘note by the performer’ which accompanies this recital. In it he tries to explain his conception of the works on this disc and his interpretation of them in terms of “their relationship to the transcendent”. It is utterly earnest, and it is brave indeed to pin one’s colours to the mast in such searing and unconventional terms. He discusses the apparent impossibility of experiencing beauty without truth and briefly relates this idea to his shaping of the Ouverture and Sarabande from the Partita and to his reading of the central Andante of the ‘Italian’ Concerto (movements which Colli unquestionably plays with rare poise and refinement), before embarking on an extraordinary narrative analysis of Busoni’s famous adaptation of the Chaconne for violin BWV 1004, an arrangement which this captivating Italian unhesitatingly casts as “the finest transcription in the entire history of piano music”. He reads this work as an almost literal description of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Last Judgement and his justification of this view is forensic, if utterly speculative. Whether one buys into it or not, even whether one reads it, it is ultimately anathema as far as I’m concerned (in any case Gould’s quote acts as an uber-pithy paraphrase of Colli). What matters is the music, and from first note to last, Colli’s performance is electrifying.

I’m not the only one for whom Gould remains the reference in both the D major Partita and the ‘Italian‘ Concerto, which he recorded twice, in 1959 and 1981 – with the Andante in the earlier account considerably (and winningly) fleeter. Gould’s recording of the Partita from 1962-63 still sounds fabulous – it was always the best recorded of the cycle. So it is a rare pleasure to hear fascinating, convincing new accounts of these works in brilliant Chandos sound on another Steinway played by a performer whose deeply considered conceptions are matched by flawless execution. Thus in the Partita, the Overture’s dramatic introduction has both delicacy and Gallic splendour, before Colli projects the succeeding quicker section with diamantine clarity and lightness of touch. His feeling for the architecture of the Partita as a whole and for each individual panel is apparent throughout. He builds the expressive Allemande with considerable patience, and while each phrase is finely and individually chiselled it evolves most naturally. It is neatly balanced by the jovial Courante, its inner detail revealed deftly and gracefully. The Sarabande is perfectly weighted – Colli’s soft playing is a wonder. It’s the highlight of a performance that’s full to the brim with character, elegance and insight, a wonderful account that at once demonstrates that expressive purity and technical skill are not mutually exclusive. Colli’s performance incorporates both Gould’s dexterity and Igor Levit’s expressiveness. The Chandos sound is superlative.

These characteristics are equally well demonstrated in the ‘Italian’ Concerto, whose bubbly outer movements are thrillingly dispatched by Colli. In each case his grasp of Bach’s overarching structure is matched by crisply defined articulation of the inner voices. The subtle gradations in the dynamics of the concluding Presto are most tastefully managed. But it is the beautiful central Andante which will melt listeners’ hearts here – this is quiet playing which certainly approaches the transcendent but which seemingly does so by ultimately allowing Bach to speak for himself.

Glenn Gould never recorded Busoni’s great transcription of the D minor Chaconne from the solo violin Partita BWV 1004; this is all the more frustrating given that Busoni’s son Benni once told him in a letter that of all pianists it was Gould whose style most resembled his father’s. Notwithstanding Colli’s ‘commentary’ on his ‘experience’ of this work, he produces an awesome account, albeit one that is occasionally punctuated with stylistic and technical felicities which recall the great Canadian maverick. The measured tread of the introductory bars subtly intensifies as Colli projects carefully layered shifts in dynamic as the variations proceed. His playing oscillates between the tentative, the purposeful, and the grandiose; between the virtuosic and the incredibly delicate. The collisions and overlaps between these moods cohere into a performance of tremendous variety, nobility, volatility and power. Given these technical and emotional extremes this coherence is quite bewildering. Following the first great climax of the Chaconne, at precisely the halfway point in this performance, all is suddenly still; Colli’s quiet playing seems to emerge as if from the ether. It is quite literally a breathtaking moment. I have tried, in vain, to follow his ‘programme’ more than once; each time I have simply given up and yielded to the delicacy and power of Colli’s pianism. As a performance it is colossal; as an interpretation it is profoundly moving on its own terms.

In the final analysis my enthusiasm for this disc is less about Colli’s philosophical ruminations upon the music, however heartfelt they may be, and more about his approach to playing it, which is both compelling and fresh; it combines abundant technical finesse with a visionary grasp of scale and structure, as well as the ability to project extremes of fragility and monumentality (most notably in the Chaconne), and above all to conjure a kaleidoscopic palette of colours and textures from his Steinway. This is an intelligently compiled programme, stunningly performed, in immaculate sound. Do not hesitate.

Richard Hanlon


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