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CD Review

Great Pianists of the 20th Century

Volume 94 - Rosalyn Tureck I

Johann Sebastian Bach

Partitas, BWV 825-830

Rosalyn Tureck, piano
Philips 456976-2 mono 79:31 + 79:48
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Tremendous.

The liner notes to this installment of "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" (vol. 94) spend some time defending the inclusion of Ms. Tureck in the series. She has pioneered a career of a certain type. After her start in standard Romantic virtuoso repertoire as well as in contemporary music, she settled into a dedicated devotion to one composer – Bach – at the time, a very unusual choice for a pianist. It takes a virtuoso to play Bach well, but the composer doesn't provide Lisztian jaw-dropping finger fireworks. The virtuosity is subtler and at least as much mental as mechanical. Tureck has not confined herself to the piano. She has also mastered harpsichord and clavichord, conducted, and provided scholarly editions of some of Bach's non-keyboard works. For my money, she has achieved much in just about everything she's set her mind to.

We could talk about whether Bach should be done on the piano at all, but to me that's a non-issue. Authenticity – and one could debate that issue all by itself – matters to me less than musical result. I like HIP performance because good HIP performers give me new insights into the music. On the other hand, Stokowski's and Webern's Bach transcriptions for orchestra do the same. At this stage of the game, furthermore, it's not a matter of either-or. One can pick from a huge range of performance styles. Recognizing the value and pleasures of HIP shouldn't blind us to those of first-rate non-HIP musicians.

My favorite recordings of the Partitas (in no particular order) include Gould and Hewitt, as well as Tureck. I became acquainted with the Tureck last of all, even though she recorded it first. This partly resulted from her American label, the small but patrician American Decca, who also recorded such artists as Szymon Goldberg, Andrés Segovia, and the New York Pro Musica, but who never seemed to have their distribution act together. Until recently, so much of her early work never made it to CD. Companies have begun to make up for this lapse, and I will review some time in the future at least three more releases – from Philips, DG, and VAI. Comparing my three favorite versions, I'd say in general that Hewitt strikes me as vivacious, Gould as nervous and edgy, and Tureck as elegant. I won't call one better than another, because they all play at such a high level and because Bach's music encourages very different approaches. I prefer to say "this shows something about Bach I hadn't thought of" rather than "this is Bach in essence."

Tureck's playing has changed over the years, and this reflects her search for a piano style suitable for Bach. Her harpsichord and clavichord playing has influenced her piano playing, for example. I prefer her work from the Fifties and early Sixties – to me the most sheerly beautiful piano tone she ever achieved. It reminds me a bit of cream in a silver pitcher. She spins out long lines of music and phrases gorgeously besides. It's almost like listening to a string quartet. Yet, she can be rhythmically sharp when the music calls for it. She has complete control of the full dynamic range – at least three gradations of pianissimo, for example. Most amazingly, she can emphasize any contrapuntal line at any time and even several lines simultaneously, all clear and nothing disappearing into a pianistic "wash." If the musical pleasures of Bach lie for you in his counterpoint, then give these discs a listen.

Frankly, I have some difficulty keeping the keyboard works of Bach straight, with the exceptions of the WTC, the Goldbergs, the Italian Concerto, and the English Suites. There are indeed a lot of them. I think of the English Suites as having more complex opening movements than, say, the French Suites, but that applies to a bunch of other Bach works as well, including the partitas. Tureck's reading brings out the individuality of each partita unlike almost any other – this despite a non-theatrical approach. Tureck achieves poetry of a very high order, essentially through restraint.

Each movement presents something special, but I'll give just the highlights. In the Partita #1 "Allemande," Tureck creates three voices out of mainly two lines through superb dynamic control of each voice and an impeccable sense of phrase. The following "Corrente" sings with a quiet joy, all the while miraculously avoiding the fey. I should say that I can play this one – that is, I hit the notes – but not nearly this well. Of course, I'm a klutz, but Tureck leaves better keyboard players than me in the dust as well.

The Partita #2 seems one of the more popular of the set among pianists. Argerich, for example, plays it in her volume (#2) of this same "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series. It's a brilliant performance, emphasizing the drama and color of Bach's music – basically an orchestral conception, I think. Compared to Tureck, she flies – roughly six minutes shorter over all six movements. On the other hand, Tureck moves with all deliberate speed – emphasis on "deliberate." She holds your interest through her control of line, phrase, and general architecture. By "line," I mean the way she connects notes one after the other – the impulse behind the singing, the feeling that nothing stops, that even at the end of the piece, the music continues somewhere. Control of "phrase" demands that the performer understand the location of the keystone or destination within a musical sentence. Think of all the ways a good actor (or even a bad one) can deliver "To be or not to be: that is the question." What is the most important word in the line? You can't hit everything without sounding hokey and stiff. Your choice determines how the rest of the line falls into shape. The same holds true for a musician. This simple concept usually takes a lifetime to learn. Without getting weird about it, Tureck continually surprises you. In the opening "Sinfonia," a three-part structure (French overture intro, aria, and extended quasi-fugal tag), Bach offers consecutive quick riffs in which the same high note culminates each variation on the riff. Most pianists hit that note more or less the same. Tureck never steps on that note the same way twice. Each time differs from every other significantly: you know she has thought about her interpretation down to that minute level. You can't do this sort of thing without stupendous technique; it's highly unlikely the options will even occur to you. In the final part of the "Sinfonia," Tureck emphasizes both the independence and the asymmetry of Bach's lines – about as far from "sewing-machine Bach" as you can get. It's like watching the dodge-'em cars at the amusement park – all these little cars careening and careering, except in Tureck's case, they never crash.

For the first half, Tureck's account of the Partita #3 is a study in low dynamics and the range of mood possible therein – from the elvish lightness of the "Corrente" to the lyrical melancholy of the "Sarabande." The dynamic spectrum opens up in the final three movements, where Tureck delivers tremendous intensity and shows Bach almost in a country-dance mode. It makes for an odd picture – highly sophisticated music, where you nevertheless hear the occasional stamp of feet on a wooden floor.

The Partita #4 counts as one of the two most elaborate (the other: #6) of the set. In order to fit all the partitas on two CDs, Tureck – contrary to her custom – consented to removing the repeats from the massive "Sarabande" movement. Even then, she clocks in at around four and a half minutes. The "Allemande" thus becomes the longest movement of all, at nine minutes. Think of the difficulty in sustaining interest over such a span, without the dramatic juxtapositions and contrasts of Romantic music. Tureck responds to the challenge and generates a line that turns and glides like a great dancer. She calls upon all her considerable pianistic resources – varieties of dynamic, touch, "connectedness" between notes. The musical argument has more shade than a Caravaggio. Considering her triumph here makes me long for those missing "Sarabande" repeats.

The "Praeambulum" that opens the fifth partita always struck me as an odd little piece – mostly 16th-note runs here and there punctuated by a three-chord pattern. Tureck here draws four parts out of Bach's two-line writing and works wonderful changes on the place of the three-chord pattern in the line – as a conclusion to a series of runs; as a temporary fulcrum, tipping the music from one idea to the next; as the fanfare heralding more to come. For just flat-out beautiful playing, the "Sarabande" here ranks for me as the outstanding track of the entire set. In the minuet, Tureck plays with rhythmic ambiguities: the old idea that six beats can be grouped in two sets of three or in three sets of two. She essentially turns the movement into both minuet and gigue and metamorphs one to the other without any sense of break at all. She caps off the work with a hell-for-leather fugal gigue. However, she also gives you more than animal spirits. Tureck's sense of architecture is formidable. She isolates a trill in the subject and then lets you hear each line of the fugue tossing that trill back and forth, almost like jazz players riffing off one another. Stupendous.

Tureck normally doesn't strike one as a "psychological" artist. Yet her account of the sixth partita takes one to emotionally complex country. One might call it dreamlike, if that word hadn't the connotations of "dreamy" and pink clouds. Tureck gives us real dreams – surprise, steely inner logic, and an undercurrent of menace never far away – not only in weighty sarabande, but also in the so-called "lighter" dances of the allemande, corrente, and gigue.

The sound, of course, is glorious mono, but it really doesn't matter. It's clean and Tureck's pianism gives you all the separation you need.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz