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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Overture in the French style, BWV 831 [25:30]
Sarabande con partite in C major, BWV 990 [19:58]
English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 911 [26:54]
Nils Anders Mortensen (piano)
rec. 2019, Jars Church, Baerum, Norway LAWO CLASSICS LWC1174 [72:24]
Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 [36:53]
French Suite no.1 in D minor, BWV 812 [19:30]
Sinfonias (3 part inventions) (selection) [28:05]
Diana Boyle (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Westleham, UK DIVINE ART DDA25190 [36:53 + 47:35]
If you have an aversion to Bach on a modern piano, you should hit the Back button now; these releases aren’t for you. I have paired them because of the proximity of their release dates, and the presence of BWV 831 on each allows a direct comparison of styles. Very different they are too, as a check on the timings for the Overture will suggest.
Nils Anders Mortensen has more than 10 recordings with the Norwegian label LAWO Classics, eight as accompanist to mezzo Marianne Beate Keilland, and always well received on these pages; this is his first Bach. Diana Boyle has released a number of other Bach recordings; two of which have been reviewed on this site (Art of Fugue ~ WTC Book 2). I will let you read them if you so desire, and I will return to them a little later.
I don’t intend to scrutinise each work on each disc, because I think a commentary on the comparison piece tells you everything you need to know about the merits of each release. Mortensen takes a fairly brisk approach, without seeming to hurry unnecessarily. His touch is light and informed by the harpsichord, in that he chooses not to use the full grandeur and dynamic range of the modern grand piano. In this, he is very much in the mainstream of modern performance practice for Bach on this instrument. He adds a little less colour and character than Angela Hewitt, but given her place on the pinnacle of Bach performance, this isn’t really a criticism, just an observation. His performances are very listenable and make you want to listen with full attention – that is definitely intended as praise.
Diana Boyle is obviously a respected performer; otherwise she wouldn’t have maintained a recording presence over two decades. However, I found her performance to be very hard going, and certainly very slow going. All tempos seem to be slow or slower. Yes, I am fully aware that JSB left no tempo markings for these works, meaning that performers have almost infinite scope for interpretation, but surely that doesn’t mean that all are equally successful. Almost all the movements in the Overture and Suite are dances but I can’t imagine anyone dancing to her leaden tempos. Every phrase is dragged out, separated by awkward silences that eliminate any dance rhythm. By way of illustration, for the opening section of the opening Ouverture of BWV 831, Boyle takes 5:52 to get to the following fugue; compare this with Mortensen’s 2:05 and Hewitt’s 2:46. Yes, timings aren’t always definitive, but they are here. When the fugue begins, Hewitt and Mortensen accelerate delightfully, Boyle continues to plod, crawl even.
John France has reviewed this Boyle release, and enjoyed it, while mentioning the slowness and worrying that the “dance elements of these works may get lost in a soft-focus haze”. Indeed! In the reviews of the two earlier releases, which I hadn’t read before requesting this or indeed before listening to it, the adjectives “unlikely”, “eccentric” (in both) and “theatrical” were used. Clearly Ms Boyle’s approach to Bach has remained consistent over the years, and I can respect that. I see that she has recorded the Goldbergs, my Desert island music; there is scant chance that I will try her version.
Production values for each release are as one would hope. While I have seen a number of single CDs with durations of over 85 minutes, Divine Art opted for two discs. I think a more sensible approach would have been to omit one of the Sinfonias (perhaps make it available as a download), or ask Ms Boyle to record all of them, thus using the space better.
Mortensen’s Bach may not challenge the best, but it is a thoroughly listenable recital. Boyle’s, on the other hand, is for her fans; anyone coming to her for the first time needs to listen extensively to samples first.