JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Partitas for Harpsichord, BWV 825 – 830: Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 17 – 21 March 2015; Sono Luminus DSL-92209; 3 CDs, 153:34; Available from Sono Luminus, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Readers who visit Voix des Arts often know that the harpsichord music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the playing of harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour are two of this author’s greatest passions. It will hardly be surprising, then, that Vinikour’s new, sonically-spectacular Sono Luminus recording of Bach’s six remarkable Partitas for solo harpsichord, BWV 825 – 830, was eagerly awaited. Those readers who are familiar with Vinikour’s work will be even less surprised to discover that the anticipation was justified and is magnificently fulfilled by the performances that grace these three discs. Born in Chicago and now again based in his native city after a long residency in France, Vinikour restores to America one of her foremost musical treasures, one who enriches life in Chicagoland and throughout the United States through both his solo playing and his leadership of Chicago Bach Ensemble and Milwaukee-based Great Lakes Baroque, Ltd. Still, not even these accomplishments overshadow what Vinikour achieves with this recording of the six Partitas. Measured solely against the exalted standards of Bach’s work, this is demonically demanding, richly rewarding music, music that some keyboard virtuosi perform as insipid exhibitions of their technical proficiency. Vinikour of course deserves profuse praise for the incendiary virtuosity with which he ignites the Partitas, but his pyrotechnics are intended to illuminate, not to distract and blind. Ultimately, what ushers this release into the company of the most important Bach recordings is its documentation of Vinikour’s faculty for allying historically-informed erudition with timeless eloquence. In his playing of the Partitas, the music sighs and smiles, jokes and jostles, ponders and prays, but the supreme marvel of this recording is that every sentiment that emanates from these performances comes directly from Bach’s scores.
Built in 1995 by Virginia-based Thomas and Barbara Wolf, the double-manual harpsichord heard in these performances of Bach’s Partitas was modeled after a 1739 single-manual instrument from the workshop of Hannover-born Christian Vater. Any music played on this splendid instrument could not fail to make a favorable impression on the listener, but the interplay of the harpsichord’s exceptional clarity and rich but perfectly-balanced overtones, expertly managed by Vinikour and captured with rare immediacy by Sono Luminus’s technicians, is ideal for Bach’s opulent music. Published individually between 1726 and 1730 and collectively under the title Clavier-Übung I in 1731, the six Partitas were likely the last of Bach’s suites for keyboard to be composed, furthering the aims pursued in his so-called English and French Suites. That the Partitas are milestones both in Bach’s writing for the harpsichord and in the keyboard literature as a whole is apparent in every bar of the music, and Vinikour’s playing, while observing every intricacy of the scores, reveals that Bach’s expressive vocabulary was no less prodigious in the harpsichord’s language than in his musical essays for orchestra and voices.
Introducing his performance of Partita No. 1 in B♭ major (BWV 825) with a broadly-phrased but quicksilver account of the magisterial Praeludium, a movement worthy of the greatest of Bach’s works for organ, Vinikour at once establishes a musical environment in which virtuosity and interpretive intelligence are the defining virtues of the playing. In this performance, the solemnity of the music is never allowed to completely overshadow the flashes of humor. Vinikour’s fingers deliver the Allemande with the unerring precision of a dancer’s feet, and he makes the bustling Corrente redolent not of a society of starched jabots and powdered periwigs but of an assembly of spirited youths. This is not to suggest that Vinikour’s performance is in any way lacking in sophistication: rather, his is the sophistication of sincere connection with the music rather than snobbish proselytizing. There is an appealing serenity at the heart of his playing of the Sarabande, the bel canto flow of its melody emphasized, and Menuets 1 and 2 are here genuinely festive, not artificially formal. The energy that Vinikour expends in his exhilarating performance of the Giga that ends the first Partita sounds sufficient to illuminate the Manhattan skyline for years to come, but, instead of the harpsichordist’s ego, it is the composer’s brilliance that glistens in the tuneful glow.
What can superficially be deemed an arbitrary progression of tonalities among the Partitas is revealed upon closer scrutiny to be a carefully-considered, deliberately-wrought exploration of the full range of sonorities and expressive possibilities afforded by the keys selected by Bach. Partita No. 2 in C minor (BWV 826) begins with a Sinfonia that receives from Vinikour exceptionally fine handling. His recent conducting of Händel’s Agrippina for California’s West Edge Opera and Purcell’s Fairy-Queen for Chicago Opera Theater confirmed the depth of Vinikour’s talent for attentive management both of pieces’ individual structures and of their functions within the overall construction of a score, and this talent is as apparent in the Partitas as in large-scaled vocal works. As in Partita No. 1, the sequence of Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande in Partita No. 2 is traced with focus on the distinct rhythmic identities of each form, thematic development exposed with remarkable clarity that never disrupts the lyrical tides of the music. Unique among the Partitas, the effervescent Rondeaux is dispatched by Vinikour with cosmopolitan elegance: the fallacy of Bach having virtually been an artistic loner is dispelled by the close kinship with similar music by François Couperin, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Jakob Froberger that Vinikour’s performance discloses. The Partita’s closing Capriccio is an ideal showcase for harpsichord and harpsichordist. The instrument’s response is as compelling as the musician’s mastery of it, the flawless articulation of passagework putting many fine harpsichords and harpsichordists to shame.
It is with an imaginative Fantasia of the type found throughout Bach’s oeuvre for keyboard that Partita No. 3 in A minor (BWV 827) begins, and the freedom within historically-appropriate parameters with which Vinikour plays it expands the sparks of ingenuity that flicker throughout the Fantasia into a conflagration that consumes the Partita as a whole. The taut fingering in the subsequent Allemande gives way to appealing contrasts of vigor and tranquility in the Corrente and Sarabande, the player’s wrists seeming first to be controlled by tightly-wound springs and then by spring zephyrs. The term having a substantially less risqué connotation in the Eighteenth Century than it now evokes, Bach’s Burlesca is charming rather than insinuating, but there is nothing quaint about Vinikour’s playing; no more so than there is anything overtly comical in his playing of the Scherzo, an early use of this form which further validates Bach’s stature as an innovator. The concluding Gigue’s demands are met with unflappable ease, but Vinikour is not satisfied by merely playing the notes capably—a feat, it must be admitted, that is commendable in its own right. His playing here is beguilingly balletic, every decorative note of the Gigue perfectly en pointe.
Partita No. 4 in D major (BWV 828) is prefaced by an Ouvertüre in Bach’s most extroverted ceremonial style, and Vinikour’s performance verifies its place among the Eighteenth Century’s greatest compositions for the keyboard. Prefiguring Brahms by more than a century, an essential aspect of Bach’s artistry was his ability to make even rigid adherence to conventions seem revolutionary, and Vinikour highlights the breadth of the composer’s creativity by achieving an astounding degree of expressive pliability whilst also carefully observing rhythmic and dynamic boundaries. In this Partita, an Aria infiltrates the Allemande – Courante – Sarabande formula between the latter two numbers, and this simple addition alters the course of the Partita surprisingly. Nobly phrased by Vinikour, the subdued Aria introduces an aura of introspection that persists in the Sarabande, one of Bach’s most beautiful. The Menuet and Gigue that follow breathe the unpolluted air of Bach’s purest vein of musical expression. Vinikour understands that the only means of performing this music that is true to Bach is to regard the notes upon the page not as a portal that leads to some hidden world of meaning but as the essence of that meaning. To interpret this music effectively is simply to play it without agendas or affectation: Bach said all that needs to be said in the music itself, and Vinikour’s stylish, selfless playing allows Bach to speak with tremendous impact.
The opening movement of Partita No. 5 in G major (BWV 829) was designated a Praeambulum by Bach, and the number has in Vinikour’s performance the driving force of a Verdi overture. More than almost any of his contemporaries, Bach excelled at developing thematic material in novel ways, exploiting every form known to him so cleverly that he redefined their emotive capacities, and Vinikour is sensitive to the manner in which Bach employed subjects and countersubjects in intimate dialogues. The harpsichordist recounts the narrative that Bach wove into the trusted pattern of Allemande, Corrente, and Sarabande with playing of demonstrative beauty, extracting frequently-overlooked subtleties from the music’s inner voices. The Tempo di Minuetto, Passepied, and Gigue constitute as varied a concatenation as occurs in any of the Partitas, and Vinikour plays each of the three pieces insightfully, differentiating their individual atmospheres and spotlighting the links among them.
With Partita No. 6 in E minor (BWV 830), Bach brought to fruition a cyclical body of work for the harpsichord that, whatever his initial intentions may have been, has ultimately exerted as great an influence on Western music as Beethoven’s String Quartets and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. It is impossible to hear Domenico Scarlatti’s, Haydn’s, Mozart’s, or Beethoven’s Sonatas for keyboard, Chopin’s Nocturnes, or the Piano Concerti of Schumann, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky without perceiving the lessons that these composers learned from Bach’s keyboard music. As Vinikour plays the blazing Toccata with which the sixth Partita commences, it is also impossible to hear this music without gaining or refining a sense of Bach’s significance as one of the musical guideposts at which past and future meet. There is special gravity in Vinikour’s performance of this Partita’s Allemande, too, his pacing facilitating complete realization of Bach’s unerring symmetry. After the fashion of Partita No. 4, an Air here steals into the company of the Corrente and Sarabande, punctuating the pulsating dances, both charismatically played by Vinikour, with a dulcet interlude almost stream-of-conscience-like in its harmonic evolution. Like the fifth Partita’s Tempo di Minuetto, the Tempo di Gavotta in the sixth Partita receives from Vinikour a traversal of uncompromising concentration melded with uncommon expressive elasticity. Too many musicians seemingly believe that Bach repertory must either be approached with arms-length reverence or subjected to overwrought interpretations in order to be acquitted of charges of academic dullness. Crowning a performance notable for its undeviating commitment to providing the listener with an experience akin to what might be heard were Bach himself at the keyboard, Vinikour’s playing of the final Gigue entrances, his fingers truly jigging through the music. As in every movement in all six of the Partitas, Vinikour finds precisely the correct mood for the Gigue—Bach’s.
More than a half-century after it was liberated from opera house orchestra pits, there are listeners who still think that the harpsichord belongs in drawing rooms and salons rather than in concert halls; or recording studios, for that matter. Likewise, an image of Bach as a dour figure peering down upon the world from an organ loft persists. Indicative to Twenty-First-Century observers of shortsightedness and downright ignorance, it is telling that Bach was primarily esteemed by his own children not as a composer but as a keyboard virtuoso. Industrious as he was throughout a long career, one wonders how much music other than his own his children heard Bach play. Could they hear the performances of the six Partitas on these Sono Luminus discs, how might they have re-evaluated their father’s legacy? Bach is now rightly esteemed as one of music’s greatest masters, but even a reputation such as his can stand occasional substantiation. Were Bach an unknown composer whose Partitas were discovered in a moldy library, Jory Vinikour’s performance of them would convince the skeptical listener that their creator was surely an unheralded genius. He now needs no advocacy, but a performance like this one, a performance in which the Partitas sound newly discovered, reaffirms that Bach was a genius both of his own age and for all time.