Donald Satz wrote (December 15, 2004):
Comparisons: Gilbert/Harmonia Mundi, Kipnis/Seraphim, Parmentier/Wildboar, Leonhardt/Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Pinnock/Hanssler
I have never heard a recording from Scott Ross that I didn't find excellent, and his 1988 performance of Bach's Partitas for Keyboard is no exception. Best known for his immense undertaking of recording all the Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti for the Erato label, Ross has an unerring sense of rhythmic flow and pacing that extends from Frescobaldi and the great Italian baroque composers to the Austro/Germanic masters including Handel and Bach.
I would like to review the Ross set through reference to the excellent comparison versions in the heading. This way, readers will hopefully have a fair idea of the distinctions among the six sets and what to expect from each.
Gustav Leonhardt needs little introduction. He was one of the early pioneers of historically informed performance practices and is much revered for his artistry and inspiration as both keyboardist and conductor. Any reservations concerning his approach to historical performance tend to revolve around the theme that he is overly austere with diminished zest for the vitality and youthfulness of the music he performs. I find that Leonhardt's austerity is mostly on the surface and that close listening reveals a wide range of emotional content.
Such is the case with Leonhardt's 1983 performance of the Partitas. The severe and sharp veneer is certainly present, but Bach's musical joy is also part of Leonhardt's menu. His performances are informed with an incisive introspection, excellent detail, concentrated energy, poignant Allemandes and Sarabandes, and sufficient exuberance in the fast movements. Concerning the fast movements, Leonhardt often employs rather slow tempos in order to clarify each muscial line. Ross is distant from Leonhardt's aesthetics, offering minimal severity and little priority on the detail of the myriad musical lines. Instead, he is buoyant throughout with great joy. Tempos are well within the mainstream, and the fast movements bring an excitement rarely conveyed by Leonhardt.
Edward Parmentier does not enjoy the reputation afforded Leonhardt, but his Wildboar/Bach recordings are a treasure to many serious Bach record collectors. Like Leonhardt, his tempos in the fast movements tend to be slowish. This allows for exquisite detail, and I think it's fair to say that no version of the Partitas brings out Bach's architectural splendor as convincingly as Parmentier's 1991 set; his use of hesitations and the staggering of musical lines is particularly rewarding. At the same time, I do have a bit of skepticism concerning Parmentier's emotional investment in this music. Emotional investment is no problem at all for Scott Ross, as can be clearly heard in his wonderful Sarabandes and overall inflections. Ross isn't one to make much use of hesitations or staggering musical lines, preferring a relatively straight-line approach to the Partitas.
A comparison between Parmentier and Ross is not complete without comment on the dance elements in the Partitas. With Parmentier's performances, the dancing nature of many of the movements is largely neglected, while Ross highlights this feature as often as possible. Essentially, there is no set of the Partitas as alive to the dance characteristics as Ross's.
Igor Kipnis seems to have been with us forever, offering performances that dig intently into the human condition. So it is with his 1977 recordings of the Partitas. No other harpsichord version is as penetrating as the Kipnis, and his set also possesses the greatest degree of variety in the repeating of sections. Unfortunately, his wealth of ornamentation can sometimes sound self-indulgent. Although Ross is certainly less creative with his repeats, they are sufficiently varied through use of leaner textures.
Trevor Pinnock's 1999 set on Hanssler has much to offer in terms of exuberance and a totally unmannered delivery, the Ross set being quite similar in this regard. However, Pinnock does glide over the emotional depth of the Allemandes and Sarabandes, and Ross always conveys a fine sense of poignancy in these movements.
There is only one harpsichord set that I favor over the Ross, and it comes from Kenneth Gilbert in his 1984-85 performances of the Partitas on Harmonia Mundi. The phrasing is so natural that I feel I'm listening to Bach play in his home. Given performances that glow with warmth and understanding, the Ross set must take second place to Gilbert's.
Concerning sound quality, Ross is given excellent sound for the time period although it is a little shallow in depth. For a truly exceptional soundstage, the Parmentier and Pinnock sets fill the bill. The Kipnis, Gilbert, and Leonhardt sets are roughly equal in sound quality to the Ross.
For those who prefer Bach on piano, there are exceptional sets of the Partitas from Rosalyn Tureck on Philips, Wolfgang Rubsam on Naxos, and the one and only Glenn Gould for Sony. Clearly, there is an abundance of riches for recordings of the Partitas, and Scott Ross presents one of the best versions available. His life-affirming and vibrant interpretations should provide many hours of joyous listening to those who acquire the recordings.
Don's Conclusions: Except for the Gilbert set, the Scott Ross performances of Bach's Partitas are as good as any harpsichord versions currently on the market. I don't know if this set will be released in the United States, but those interested should be willing to search afar to discover such wonderful readings from the pen of Bach.