Bach: Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV 825; Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826; Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827; Partita No. 5 in G, BWV 829

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV 825; Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826; Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827; Partita No. 5 in G, BWV 829
PERFORMER: Claudio Arrau (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 434 904-2 DDD
Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel described the partitas as ‘brilliant, agreeable, expressive and original’, noting that they caused a sensation when they were first performed. Today they are as often played, and recorded, on the piano as on the harpsichord; and these three new versions demonstrate that the modern instrument offers as much scope for wide divergences of interpretation as the old.

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Arrau’s set of four, made shortly before his death two years ago, was his first recorded encounter with the composer for half a century. In the mid-Thirties he played all Bach’s keyboard works in a series of Berlin recitals, but later dropped them from his repertoire after hearing performances by the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.

His partitas are individual without being eccentric, and are stamped with the mark of a master pianist. The scale is right, and, although he is occasionally a little deliberate, tempi are generally brisk. Throughout there is clarity, flexibility and subtle use of colour and dynamics, and he embellishes tastefully. Above all, a sense of vitality and forward momentum breathes life into the music.

Wolfgang Rübsam offers all six partitas, on three temptingly inexpensive Naxos discs. These are undeniably thought-provoking, but should certainly be avoided by anyone coming to the music for the first time. Rübsam’s highly intuitive style is based on what he argues are established performance practices of Bach’s day, resulting in interpretations of such improvisatory freedom that some passages are almost unrecognisable; distorted by fluctuations of tempi and extended pauses which compromise the sense of line.

In this company the Italian pianist Maria Tipo sounds rather bland, notable more for her ease of execution than for imagination, and handicapped by recessed sound of less than perfect clarity.

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Of the three it is Arrau, reconverted to playing Bach on the piano in his late eighties, who offers the most satisfying musical experience in recordings which provide a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. David Michaels