Discussions of Bach’s Instrumental Works - No. 7
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825
Francis Browne wrote (November 30, 2003):
Aryeh has kindly helped to make four recordings of the first movement of the first partita in B flat major (BWV 825) available as a starting point for discussion. They can be found (for the duration of any discussion) at:
I would like to thank Aryeh for his help and encouragement in making this experomemt possible
To start regular discussions based on examples of recordings I have followed the example of Bach himself and started with the praeludium of BWV 825, the first keyboard partita. This was published as Bach's Opus 1 in 1731 – this seems misleading, both because by that time Bach had been producing a series of masterpieces for many years and because the first partita was dedicated five years previously to the son of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen in 1726.
But one can easily understand what Bach was doing in choosing this movement to introduce the partitas. Like the opening prelude of the WTC or the first cello suite it has a wonderful power of seizing the attention and then delghting any attentive listener and impressing itself indelibly on the memory..
Certainly at a time when I had heard very little of Bach's keyboard music I was intrigued by the partita in Dinu Lipatti's rendition. I had found his recording of Chopin's waltzes revelatory in its eloquence and nobility - he made other performers sound clodhopping in comparison. Something of the same rightness of phrasing and vitality of rhythm seemed to me to be achieved in this partita. Listening to it again after some years my initial impression was that the tempo was too rapid and he was staying elegantly on the surface of the music.But listening to it repeatedly I was won over by the convincing way the movement as a whole was shaped. This is not the only way of approaching this music but I found it cogent and memorable.
In a different way the same applies to the very different approach of Wolfgang Rübsam. I do not have this recording -yet!- but listened to it (and then the rest of the partitas) on the Naxos website. For convenience I have provided an audio file along with the other examples, but you will probably hear it better by logging on to the Naxos website (The disc no. is 8.550692). Rübsam has none of the compelling momentum generated by Lipatti. Instead his approach seems exploratory, tentative. Each phrase seems like a discovery that the musician is sharing at that moment with the listener. I suspect that this effect is only achieved by the artist painstakingly rethinking each bar of the work for himself.
Neither of these performances seems right and the other wrong : both reveal different aspects of a rich piece of music.
Turning to the performances on harpsichord Maggie Cole's performance - like her playing generally- gives me great pleasure. The approach is straightforward, without eccentricity, but still with a fine feeling for the inner spirit of the music. If I seem lukewarm in my praise, it is because I feel that a good performance by Cole is surpassed by a great performance by Leonhardt. Quite apart from the fact that the harpsichord played by Leonhardt is a richer, more pleasingly resonant instrument , there is a rightness and authority about Leonhardt's playing of this movement that I find totally convincing. It is majestic but not in the least pompous, both dynamic and lyrical. I cannot help feeling that such a magisterial rendition of this music is what Bach intended ' for music lovers, to delight their spirits'.
It is possible to hear samples from other performances of the praeludium on the net. Schiff in a very brief extract did not seize my attention:
Angela Hewitt seemed far more interesting and lively in her approach: Amazon.com
Most interesting was Edward Parmentier. There is a clarity and intelligent energy about his approach which intrigued me . But frustratingly the extract is brief and the recordings not easily obtainable in England:
There are informative notes about the partitas by Yo Tomita at:
There are characteristically excellent and perceptive reviews of a wide range of partita recordings by Don Satz and Kirk McElhearn at:
But I hope many will be able to listen to the examples and form their own opinions. What shape any discussion may take and whether this experiment will add positively to the list and be continued - now depends on you.
Nessie Russell wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] Thank you for providing these MP3s and samples. I am a musician, not a writer. I'm not good at writing my feelings about recordings, but I am going to give it a try. Hopefully this will inspire better writers to try.
Firstly I will confess that I am biased towards the piano. I enjoyed the Lipatti. I liked the tempo. As you said, he shaped the movement well.
I do not like the Rübsam. It is much too slow and mannered for my taste.
I listened to the Hewitt clip. To me, this seems like just the right tempo! I don't have the CD, but I have heard it on the radio. It's lovely.
Of all the harpsichord versions I enjoy Leonhart's the best. Perhaps it's a bit too slow for me.
I am looking forward to hearing from others.
Juozas Rimas wrote (November 30, 2003):
< I do not like the Rübsam. It is much too slow and mannered for my taste. >
Indeed, what is the logic behind Rübsam's approach? The piece is called a prelude and should be, according to basic logic, an introduction, a sort of warm-up. Now it sounds like a relaxed sarabande, suitable after a speedy movement. The ending also left me confused: increasing volume, march-like solemn mood all of a sudden and abrupt cut-off at the very end. Huh?
Neil Halliday wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] I must say I was intrigued by Rübsam's rendition because of the way he attracted my attention to every detail in the score.
(Thus interested, I 'had a go' myself. I recommend to those who have access to a sustaining keyboard (and the score) that they should play it through; you will hear the continuous 3-part harmony and many of the striking discords that are usually lost on non-sustaining keyboards (ie, pianos and harpsichords), especially where one of the parts has notes a minim or longer in length, but in other places as well. I played it on a Casio keyboard set to "organ".)
Especially striking is the penultimate bar (which increases to 4 or more parts), in which we have a 4-note chromatic descending scale in the bass, a 'D' tied so that we have a G,D,E flat,G discord, passing through a diminished 7th chord on its way to resolution in B flat, with octaves in the bass (unusual in Bach's keyboard writing). Rübsam brings all this out as clearly as can be expected on piano.
However, after this exploration of the score, I found that Rübsam's version does indeed sound slow, and I am perhaps more attracted to other renditions, especially those of Lipatti and Hewitt.
I will leave it for others to judge the other recordings which were kindly supplied by Francis and Aryeh. (Funny how a piano sounds 'plain' immediately after listenng to a harpsichord, but neverthless I think the pianists are able to bring more dynamic variety and musical interest to the piece.
Francis Browne wrote (November 30, 2003):
BWV 825 - Rübsam
Since Nellie, Juosaz and Neil have commented variously on Rübsam's performance of the praeludium, what he himself has to say about playing Bach's keyboard music may be of interest :
"This recording was produced to communicate, stimulate and encourage the interpretation of Bach's keyboard works on the modern piano. It is based upon recognized fundamental elements of performance practices of early music.
The interpretation of Bach's music on the modern piano remains a confusing issue in light of the fact that the instrument basically evolved with the romantic period. It is, therefore, no surprise that attempts frequently result in romantic readings, a direction which can be most musical at times but may be stylistically confusing if not actually foreign to the score. Musical preferences also favor a clean, mathematical and metronomic realization - a safe but somewhat noncommittal solution to the communication of Bach's artistry.
On a different level, then, is the enjoyment of incorporating the often neglected elements of rhetoric, enegalité, the structures of the strong and weak within a given pulse and meter, and the fingering techniques of the time (shifting and sequential fingerings rather than consecutive scale fingerings). These components, which are strongly interrelated and directly influence choices of articulation and flexibility of rhythm, often answer automatically questions of style, especially when they are understood as basic elements of the musical language.
The complex subject of ornamentation, both Bach's written out ornaments and the liberty given in repeats of movements, is most challenging and rewarding when there is the concept of freedom of execution and the manner is improvisational and imaginative.
Dynamic shadings within figurations, motivic material, and entire musical lines in any part of the polyphonic structure become particularly exciting and meaningful upon melodic (and harmonic) analysis. Important pitches, in the greater sense of the direction, can be pointed out by dynamic control and nuance and by the effect of rhythmic flexibility within the structure of the melodic line. The degree of such bending in time is most personal and strongly communicative when applied with balance and refinement of taste.
The process of merging the "old" and the "new" in Bach's keyboard works will be an ongoing pursuit for me as it will most likely be for the pianists with an interest in early music who strive for reorganization of the ear before fingers are expected to reflect such inner feelings. Since such musical detail is best demonstrated by the music itself, it is my hope that this recording will be a helpful example in this process and that listeners and students alike will find it an enjoyable means of communication."
From 'About this recording' on the Naxos website.
The same deliberative, exploratory approach as he uses in the prelude can also be heard in the sarabande - with interesting results; but in the minuet the slowness - while revealing much detail in the music - for me loses completely the momentum necessary for such a dance movement. Rübsam's gigue, however, does have momentum and some of his phrasing is striking.
Leonhardt's approach to the minuet (and gigue) is also in some ways deliberate,even mannered - but the results are far more convincing.
As Kirk suggested it may be easier to discuss the partita as a whole. The varied movements after all do present different challenges to the performer who still has to shape them into a convincing whole. The audio examples are meant only to be a starting point which everyone can share.
I would be particularly interested to hear how the versions by Suzuki and Piotr Anderszewski compare with the examples.
Nessie Russell wrote (December 1, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] Thanks for the notes Francis. I have heard Rübsam's argument many times. I guess it is a matter of personal taste.
A side comment - when I was a piano student I was taught to play Bach in this manner. For years the local competitions were a gamble. Would the adjudicator want a Romantic style or the "clean, mathematical and metronomic realization"?
When I went to the R.C.M. I was converted to the "cleaner" side. I entered a Bach Prelude and Fugue once in a competition. The judge was of the Romantic persuasion and refused to give a prize to anyone.
When I was a teacher I always advised students to stay clear of the Bach classes. The judges were always very passionately one way or the other.
I found examiners to be fair. My students always did well in the Bach portion of the exam no matter which way the examiner preferred "his Bach".
Satofumi wrote (December 1, 2003):
< I guess it is a matter of personal taste. >
I prefer Rübsam's approach very much, though I would not listen to it very often. I wish I could play in a line of Rübsam's concept (but not the similar performance).
Santu de Silva wrote (December 1, 2003):
I still have a nagging feeling of discomfort at distributing what amounts to recordings of performances which are not in the public domain. I confess to having done it for recordings that are out of print, or for small samples. (Incidentally, I owe Thomas Radleff some stuff; I have not forgotten!)
I could easily subscribe to the "down with copyright" philosophy if I knew for certain that the benefits would all be good.
Arch, feeling frustrated with philosophical issues.
David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (December 2, 2003):
[To Francis Browne] I think an interesting experiment would be to compare this Praeludium with the Praeludium XXIII B-Dur (BWV 868) in erster Teil der Wohltemperierte Klavier and the Invention B-Dur (BWV 785).
David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (December 2, 2003):
BWV 825 and Klavierwerke
I have not heard any of the Piano recordings of the Wohltemperierte Klavier, but have heard one of the Goldbergs and am not totally impressed.
I have always favored more "period instrument" performances in regards to Bach's Klavierwerke (by "period instruments" Imean Harpsichord, Clavichord, Organ [perhaps], and Fortepiano).
Of the recordings I have and have heard of the various performances of the Wohltemperierte Klavier on Harpsichord and/or Clavichord, I favor Leonhardt, the one on the Pliz label (in the Vienna Masters series), and Kirkpatrick. I also am very favorable of the Edition Bachakademie recording of the Klavierbüchlein fuer Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and its alternation between Harpsichord, Clavichord, and Organ for the various works.
Here's a question for anyone who chooses to answer: where could I find a recording of Bach's Klavierwerke performed on Fortepiano? I have heard Mozart performed on it, but not Bach or much of his sons.