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Hyperion Records

CDA67191/2 - Bach: The Six Partitas

Recording details: Various dates
Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: April 1997
DISCID: 17109713 2B10FF15
Total duration: 142 minutes 29 seconds


'Effortlessly eclipsing all competition … the whole disc gives unalloyed pleasure; definitely one of my choices of the year' (Gramophone)

'One of the outstanding Bach pianists of our time, her playing of the great Partitas is something very special indeed. She is formidably equipped for this demanding music – technically, musically, intellectually. These are discs to play again and again and marvel at the artistry' (The Sunday Times)

'Everything has been deeply considered. Everything works. Hewitt makes a beautiful, limpid sound; her ornaments are exquisitely precise as well as sounding natural; she uses the subtle shadings and variations of volume possible on the piano without swamping the music. Technically the paying is faultless … superbly poised, light and joyous. Indeed, that would sum up the entire set' (Classic CD)

'Hyperion gives us something to treasure here. I recommend this set without reservation' (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Ireland)

'For this pair of discs only superlatives will do. Replete with inventiveness at its most outstanding. My appreciation of this Canadian pianist is enormous; I classify her among the top performers of our time' (Soundscapes, Australia)

'Pouvait-on imaginer Bach aussi limineux, brillant? … Un exercice 'parfait', à écouter et é réécouter pour un savourer toute la puissance, toute l'éloquence (Répertoire, France)

'Une interprète qui mérite d'être suivi avec la plus grand attention' (Diapason, France)

The Six Partitas
Praeludium  [1'49]
Allemande  [3'04]
Corrente  [3'13]
Sarabande  [4'32]
Giga  [2'10]
Allemande  [4'27]
Courante  [2'28]
Sarabande  [3'16]
Rondeaux  [1'39]
Capriccio  [3'40]
Allemande  [8'35]
Courante  [3'42]
Aria  [2'17]
Sarabande  [5'47]
Menuet  [1'31]
Gigue  [3'58]
Fantasia  [2'04]
Allemande  [2'57]
Corrente  [3'09]
Sarabande  [3'56]
Burlesca  [2'17]
Scherzo  [1'10]
Gigue  [3'19]
Praeambulum  [2'17]
Allemande  [4'01]
Corrente  [1'54]
Sarabande  [4'58]
Passepied  [1'53]
Gigue  [4'02]
Allemande  [3'27]
Corrente  [4'48]
Air  [1'34]
Sarabande  [7'24]
Tempo di Gavotta  [2'03]
Gigue  [6'04]

Astonishingly, the Six Partitas for Clavier were the first works Bach published—after more than twenty years of composing. 'Opus 1' (as he called it) was 'offered to music lovers in order to refresh their spirits' and the works scored an immediate hit, becoming core repertoire for keyboard players both professional and amateur.

'Partita' is simply another name for a suite of dance movements, and each of these collections combines grace, agility and sprightliness with a nobleness of spirit which makes them not only accessible and attractive, but also worthy in every way of their position in the Clavierübung—Bach's own summation of his compositional skills.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When Johann Sebastian Bach left his post as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen in 1723 to go to the more prestigious city of Leipzig as Kantor of the Thomaskirche he had no idea of the troubles that awaited him there. In Cöthen he had spent six very happy years composing mainly instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the French Suites. He had, however, hesitated before accepting the new position, as the switch from Kapellmeister (orchestra leader) to Kantor (director of church music) was a step downwards in status, but he knew that Leipzig would be a better place to educate his children. His first wife had died suddenly in 1720 leaving him with three sons and a daughter (three others, including twins, had died in infancy), but a year later he married Anna Magdalena Wülcken, a professional singer sixteen years his junior and the mother-to-be of thirteen more Bachs. Although his income increased with the move to Leipzig, the high cost of living in that city made things difficult for such a large family. As part of his duties as Kantor, Bach was responsible for music in the choir school, at the university, and on civic occasions. None of the authorities involved appreciated Bach’s genius (one of them even dared to say that Bach showed ‘little inclination to work’!), and their penny-pinching and narrow-mindedness were a constant source of annoyance. More than anything, Bach wished to upgrade the instruments, instrumentalists and singers at his disposal, but was repeatedly refused the necessary funds to do so. Many of his wonderful cantatas – a new one incredibly dished up every Sunday – were perhaps given less than perfect first performances.

It was during his early Leipzig years that Bach took it upon himself to publish a work for the first time. It now seems incredible to us that out of one thousand or so compositions only a dozen were published in his lifetime. Even more astounding is the fact that the six Brandenburg Concertos (nowadays almost ‘pop’ music) had to wait one hundred years after the composer’s death for publication. Bach’s contemporaries who wrote more accessible music, such as Telemann and Handel, had no trouble getting their music published, and even received royalties. Bach’s ‘Opus 1’ (as he called it, even though he had already been composing for twenty years) was a set of six Partitas for keyboard, ‘offered to music lovers in order to refresh their spirits’. The first Partita in B?flat major appeared alone in 1726, and one followed each year until the six were published together and put on sale at the 1731 Leipzig Fair. These works were to form Part I of the Clavierübung (‘Keyboard Exercise’). Although they were never reprinted during Bach’s lifetime, they were, according to the composer’s first biographer Forkel, a success: ‘This work made in its time a great noise in the musical world. Such excellent compositions for the clavier had not been seen and heard before. Anyone who had learnt to perform well some pieces out of them could make his fortune in the world, and even in our time [1802], a young artist might gain acknowledgement by doing so, they are so brilliant, well-sounding, expressive and always new.’

‘Partita’ is simply another name for a suite of dance movements in the same key formed to make a satisfactory whole. The titles ‘Partita’ and ‘Clavierübung’ had already been used by Bach’s predecessor at the Thomaskirche, Johann Kuhnau, for two collections of keyboard works in 1689 and 1692. As Bach never strayed far from home (in his whole life he never went beyond a radius of 200 miles), he only became acquainted with the music of France, the leader in the field of dance music, and Italy by copying scores he found in various libraries. Albinoni, Vivaldi, Corelli, Couperin – all were absorbed by him, but then turned into something greater. Bach’s earlier French Suites, works of great beauty and imagination, are on a much smaller scale than the six Partitas and begin with the traditional Allemande. The English Suites, the first set of six suites he composed, occupy a middle ground between the two, opening with a concerto-like Prelude. When we become familiar with the Partitas we tend to identify them immediately with their diverse opening movements – each making an important initial statement about the character of the work as a whole. Two Partitas, the third and sixth, appear in earlier versions as part of the 1725 Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach. Although Bach probably never expected anyone to perform these pieces complete in public, they are nowadays among his most popular concert vehicles for both harpsichordists and pianists.

In publishing his Opus 1, Bach most probably wanted to begin with something highly accessible and attractive, yet worthy of his art. The Partita No 1 in B flat is certainly the most approachable of the six, and the one most pianists attempt first. It continues in the spirit of the French Suites, combining grace, agility, sprightliness, and nobility. The trill at the opening of the Praeludium is the first problem to solve – especially since it has to be played with equal precision later on by the left hand. This is a movement of beautiful proportions with a built-in crescendo at the end (Bach doubling the left hand in octaves). The themes of almost all the subsequent dance movements are centred around a broken B flat major chord – the Allemande with its unbroken line of semiquavers, the Corrente with triplets, the first Menuet in quavers. The Sarabande unfolds with great dignity and calm despite Bach’s florid melody and trills. To finish Bach wrote what has surely become one of his ‘greatest hits’: the brilliance of the hand-crossing in the Giga, once mastered, is exciting to both player and audience alike.

Greater musical and technical challenges are present already in the Partita No 2 in C minor. The Sinfonia is remarkable for the drama of the opening Grave adagio, the lyrical beauty of the Andante (a rare tempo marking in Bach), and the energetic counterpoint of the two-part fugue that brings this movement to a close. After this powerful beginning the Allemande and Courante can seem slightly sober, but the counterpoint is masterful and always imaginative. The Sarabande is calm and flowing, with a steady stream of semiquavers. Then the excitement begins to build up – first with a jaunty Rondeaux, the theme of which is characterized by leaps of a seventh, and then, in place of the customary jig, a Capriccio of tremendous strength, ingenuity and humour. It is not at all hard to imagine a stringed-bass player having fun with the pizzicato leaps of a tenth in the left hand. Though difficult to play (Malcolm Boyd has called it ‘a graveyard for all but the most nimble-fingered executants’), it is one of Bach’s most enjoyable pieces.

The Partita No 3 in A minor is unjustifiably rarely played. Perhaps its opening Fantasia is not considered ‘impressive’ enough. Certainly compared to the opening movements of the other five, it is very unassuming (it is in fact a lovely, easy-flowing two-part invention). It might sound simple, but unexpected turns in the two voices make it tricky to memorize. An elegant Allemande is followed by a vigorous Corrente with perky dotted rhythms and octave leaps. The Sarabande provides a moment of tender repose in an otherwise mostly restless suite. It is a trio of unusual beauty, and I find it easy to imagine two woodwind instruments playing over a continuo bass. In the earlier version of this Partita the Burlesca was entitled Menuet (the music is the same) and there was no Scherzo. These two movements, which should follow in rapid succession, considerably boost the overall energy of the piece and lead straight into the three-part Gigue fugue. Was Bach making fun of the rules of counterpoint when he wrote the descending scale in octaves in the Burlesca? I think it most likely.

The Partita No 4 in D major is a glorious work. It has both intimacy and grandeur in abundance and, with the sixth Partita, is the longest of the set. The French Ouverture with which it begins immediately captures our attention with its flourishes, trills and double-dotting. Orchestral in nature, it moves on to a fugal section in concerto style that is nevertheless wonderfully dance-like. One of my favourite moments in all of the Partitas is the D major Allemande with its long singing phrases and beguiling intimacy. A calm but flowing tempo is needed for the ear to follow the harmonic progressions under the florid melody. After a joyful, rhythmically inventive Courante, Bach does the unusual and inserts an Aria before the Sarabande. It has been suggested that this was just to fill up some blank space on the engraver’s page, but for me this is a perfect way to prolong the lively mood established by the Courante before returning to intimate feelings with the Sarabande. The opening motif of this movement, with its ascending flourish, seems to ask a question – which is then answered in the following two bars. The delicate, two-part counterpoint roams about, again like the Allemande in long, poignant phrases. A brief Menuet, deftly combining duple and triple rhythms, is followed by a Gigue sharing Bach’s infectious vigour and zest for life.

The key of G major always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display (the ‘Goldberg’ Variations and the fifth French Suite come immediately to mind). The Partita No 5 in G major is no exception. He opens in playful mood with a Praeambulum, the first four bars of which become a kind of ritornello. The necessary hand-crossing adds visual effect. The assimilation of rhythms in the lyrical Allemande (playing the dotted rhythms to coincide with the triplets) brings an extra touch of grace. Agility and lightness of touch are required in the Corrente – harmonically the simplest such dance in the set. Ornamentation is an integral part of the exquisite Sarabande. Unlike those of the French Suites, the Sarabandes of the Partitas are already very florid and seem to require few additions from the interpreter, but not in this case. The use of double-dotting gives the rhythm extra poise and expressivity. Upon first hearing, the next movement, Tempo di Minuetta, is confusing. Surely a minuet has three beats to a bar, not two. Bach combines the two to make a whimsical, delicate dance. The 3/8 swing of the Passepied reminds me of the fourth variation of the ‘Goldberg’, having the same rustic charm. If it were not for the difficulty of the final Gigue, this Partita would probably be performed more often, but here Bach really goes to town with a double fugue – perhaps the most technically challenging movement of the six Partitas.

With the Partita No 6 in E minor Bach gives us one of his greatest masterpieces. It is a stupendous work on the grandest scale – one in which we feel his incredible strength of character, security, warmth of heart and deep faith. Here he is no longer writing for popular appeal but on the highest intellectual and emotional plane. The work opens with a Toccata where similar outer sections frame an extended fugue. Both the opening measure and the subject of the fugue make use of the ‘sigh’ motif (a descending appoggiatura) to add extra expressivity. By keeping the same basic tempo throughout the Toccata, unity is achieved (this seems to be called for by Bach as material from the first page later appears in the last episode of the fugue). The Allemande, with its poignant chromaticisms, is followed by a remarkable Corrente. One’s fingers can take an almost physical pleasure in executing its mischievous syncopations with delicacy, rapidity and brilliance. A brief Air, with a surprising second ending, precedes the Sarabande – surely one of Bach’s greatest creations. At first sight (or upon first hearing) this movement can seem baffling. It takes time to discover the framework beneath the profusion of notes, and to realize its emotional power. For me Bach is alone in this Sarabande – alone in communion with his maker in a dialogue that is at once sorrowful, hopeful, passionate, and at times exalted (the marvellous, brief modulations into major keys in bars 7, 8 and 30 interrupt the darkness with flashes of light). To go from deep inside Bach’s inner world (and therefore our own) straight into the Tempo di Gavotta can come as a bit of a shock, but we can only marvel at how Bach immediately begins to dance – even in a minor key. This is not a true gavotte – it is much more like an Italian Giga in 12/8 time. In this, and in the concluding Gigue, the interpreter faces the problem of possible alteration of note values. Playing the semiquavers to coincide with the triplets gives the Tempo di Gavotta more bounce (as does the shortening of the first two notes in the right hand). There are two very different ways of playing the Gigue fugue. One is to play a version in triple metre, bringing it somewhat closer to a traditional jig; the other is to play it exactly as written, emphasizing its angularity. I opt for the latter both because I feel the fugue subject loses force if altered and also to provide greater contrast with the preceding gavotte. Bach really outdoes himself in this final Gigue, demanding the utmost in mental virtuosity from the player. At a lively tempo the severe counterpoint can still be made to dance. Even if, in the six Partitas, my greatest affection lies with the D major Allemande, for this final Partita I say to Bach, ‘Hats off!’

Angela Hewitt © 1997

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