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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Partita No. 4 in D, BWV 828 (1728) [32.10]
Partita No. 6 in e, BWV 830 (1725 - 1731) [33.50]
Freddy Kempf (Steinway D piano)
Stefan Olsson, technician
rec. Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music) Stockholm, Sweden, July 2002.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français. Photos of artist.
BIS CD-1330 [66.03]

Comparison Recordings of the Partitas:
Paul Badura-Skoda, [ADD] MCA Westminster MCAD2-9840.
András Schiff, Decca 411 732-2
Helmut Walcha, Ammer harpsichord. [ADD] EMI Toshiba CD special import

At the time of the publication of Bach’s "Op. 1," his six Partitas, Bach probably still intended them for harpsichord or clavichord performance; yet the very musicians who played clavichord and harpsichord at that time were the ones creating the demand for the new pianoforte and establishing the specifications for it. As a result, Bach’s Partitas have had a continuous pianoforte performance tradition beginning very soon after their publication.

Freddy Kempf is a singularly expressive and emotional pianist, almost a fossil from the nineteenth century, or at least the early twentieth. He plays these works as Chopin probably played them, perhaps as the early Liszt played them. There is not the merest nodding acknowledgment of "original performance practice"; these are romantic performances full of deep sentiment, but I do not mean sentimentality. This is particularly effective in the astonishing movement No. 2, allemande, of Partita No. 4, one of Bach’s most eloquent and most personal statements. Yet during the rapid, more formally structured passages, such as the Toccata to No. 6, or the final Gigues in both, Kempf plays with complete transparency and rich drama. Rather than play the ornaments before the beat, as the Romantics did, or on the beat as the reconstructions do, he manages somehow to do both as once and it is particularly effective. It must be remarked that Kempf’s piano is the sweetest sounding Steinway D piano I’ve ever heard, and you will never hear one more perfectly in regulation or tune, which is why I always give credit in my reviews to Kempf’s technician. This is not an SACD but I can’t imagine the piano sounding any better than this, a tribute to BIS’s technical standards which are among the very highest in the industry.

The other performances on my list of comparison recordings give very different viewpoints. Paul Badura-Skoda’s performances are very scholarly in the spirit of their times, that is the early 1950s, and were at one time considered the finest available. He makes use of occasional octave doubling which was considered the height of authentic style in that time. His performances tend to a slight hesitancy as though he were constantly evaluating the scholarly import of what he was doing, innocent of forward momentum, innocent of showmanship. Yet these are genuinely musical performances, highly individual. The piano is probably his own, in his home, and the state of maintenance is not peak of the art, not even for his time. He has an unfortunate reputation, at least with me, for not seeming to notice the state of the instrument. His otherwise excellent recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas on a piano identical to the one Beethoven played at the time of their composition are marred by strings drifting out of tune and stuck dampers.

András Schiff has consistently dogged the trail of Glenn Gould, asking for comparison and coming up very strong in those comparisons. Perhaps Schiff is actually better than Glenn Gould; at least he is exciting, compelling, consistently musical, never cranky or eccentric, never annoying, and he doesn’t sing along with himself. Yet this music, although it flows freely from his fingers is never facile or commonplace. He knows exactly what to do with each note and he achieves exactly what he wants to. Anyone who wants to hear Bach on the piano must own his recordings, as well as those of Murray Perahia.

Walcha played on a large harpsichord, probably not unlike many that Bach himself played. He was conservative in his use of ornamentation and color but achieved a stunning sense of inevitable forward motion; and breathtaking, spine-tingling, intensity; his performances are to my mind the best of these works ever done. He was recently publicly criticized for not making use of "modern scholarship," most of which was published after he died, but even so his instinctive musicality and sense of tempo make his recordings essential listening for any Bach lover.

Walcha’s Bach recordings are generally available on CD, the organ works from DG and the harpsichord works from EMI, but the Partitas are only currently listed as available from Toshiba EMI by special import via priced at €44.00! Hopefully these recordings will soon be reissued by EMI France at bargain prices, as they have issued Walcha’s complete WTK and Goldberg Variations.

Paul Shoemaker



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