September 28, 2017
(+++) BACH AND THE BAROQUE, NOW AND AGAIN
Bach: Cello Suites (complete). Richard Narroway, cello. Sono Luminus. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Bach: Cello Suite No. 2; Violin Sonata No. 3; Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2; Andante from Violin Sonata No. 2. Tanya Gabrielian, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Debussy: Images—Book I; Préludes—Book II; Rameau: Castor et Pollux—Tristes Apprêts; Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin—Gavotte et six doubles. Jeffrey LaDeur, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Every generation brings its own thinking to the music of Bach and others of Bach’s time, with the result that music created 300 years or more in the past retains freshness and is constantly being reinterpreted to fit new circumstances, new scholarship, and new personal preferences. It is the “personal preferences” aspect that dominates these recent recordings, all of them exceptionally well-played and all reflecting contemporary artists’ personal circumstances and proclivities as well as their research into the music. In the case of Richard Narroway’s reading of Bach’s Cello Suites, there is a delicate balancing act (for listeners who like the approach) or a neither-here-nor-there quality (for those who remain unconvinced). It is difficult nowadays to escape studies of historically correct performance practices and of the sound world within which Baroque and other pre-modern music was created; and Narroway is quite clearly aware of when and how Bach wrote and how these suites were intended to sound. Indeed, he appears to see the suites as a progression from comparative simplicity through ever-increasing complexity, leading eventually to the sixth suite’s call for a five-string cello. Narroway’s tempos are carefully chosen, his reduced use of vibrato is admirable, his handling of ornamentation is intelligent and aware, and his overall interpretation of the suites’ movement sequences is carefully managed and creates a satisfying arc for each of the works. However, Narroway consciously chooses to perform the suites with a modern instrument, modern bow, and higher and brighter tuning than used in Bach’s time – that is, “no” to gut strings and “yes” to a cello manufactured with an endpin. Does this confluence of authentic and inauthentic elements matter? That is as personal a question for listeners as the entire interpretation is personal for Narroway. Anyone familiar with the suites – that is, used to hearing rather than playing them – will likely find the combination here a bit odd or strained: the care and attentiveness to authentic technique is an uneasy match for an instrument designed and built centuries later and for different purposes. Yet there is something refreshing in hearing a performer who uses a modern instrument (as, for example, every pianist does when performing Bach’s harpsichord works) but does so with so much sensitivity to the nuances of the time when this music was created. Narroway’s reading of these suites on Sono Luminus is unlikely to be a first-choice recording: listeners will do better to pick a fully modern interpretation or a fully historical one, depending on their own feelings about the music. But the grandeur of this music makes it common for people to own multiple recordings, and Narroway’s is certainly intriguing enough to become a thought-provoking supplement to whatever an individual’s primary preference may be.
One of the cello suites, in a transcription by Leopold Godowsky, also makes an appearance on a new MSR Classics release featuring pianist Tanya Gabrielian. This is an even more personal CD than Narroway’s, resulting from what Gabrielian describes as an epiphany of sorts that brought her wholeheartedly to a musical career through listening to Bach’s works for unaccompanied cello and violin during her recuperation from an injury. The “giving back” element of these performances shines through, and the chance to hear some rather unfamiliar versions of some very familiar music is quite welcome. Gabrielian brings considerable passion to Cello Suite No. 2, and indeed the whole program here is one of dedication that borders on devotion. But for that very reason, the performances will not be to all tastes. Unlike Narroway’s attempt to incorporate Baroque stylistic practices into a performance on a modern instrument, Gabrielian takes an old-school approach of using the emotional scope of the piano to highlight and expand the feelings generated by Bach’s notes on their own. Thus, although there is not a great deal of rubato, there is considerable use of pedal and much expressive warmth in the playing. These are by-and-large Romantic readings – not only of the cello suite but also of Violin Sonata No. 3 (one movement transcribed by Bach himself, although not for a modern piano; two by Saint-Saëns; and one by Arturo Cardelús). The virtuosic elements intended for cellists and violinists recede into the background when these pieces are played on piano, and the music’s overall feeling comes across quite differently, especially when it is given the degree of emotional intensity that Gabrielian provides. The same is true for two solo-violin movements transcribed by Alexander Siloti (the same musician who insisted on cuts in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2): the Chaconne from the second partita and Andante from the second sonata function here as filler items, respectively opening the disc and separating the violin sonata from the cello suite. Gabrielian treats both the pieces with care, involvement and considerable feeling. From the perspective of performance, this is a lovely disc, played feelingly and heartfelt from start to finish. As meaningful as it clearly is to Gabrielian, however, it is not especially insightful in terms of the music she plays.
The connection of the Baroque world to the contemporary one is even more direct, yet more abstruse, in a new MSR Classics CD on which pianist Jeffrey LaDeur plays music of Ravel and Debussy. To most listeners, this pairing is at least unusual and at most rather odd; many would assume that LaDeur has a personal reason for offering the music of such different and long-separated-in-time composers on the same disc. And so he does, but the reason is more than personal. LaDeur explains that his teacher, Annie Marchand Sherter, did a close analysis of certain Debussy works and discovered that they intimately reflect certain pieces by Rameau, in very definite and indeed unarguable ways. LaDeur is using this recording to demonstrate Sherter’s discovery pianistically. And he certainly has a way with Debussy, performing Images—Book I and Préludes—Book II with limpid, elegant technique, finely controlled and nuanced hand balance, a firm grasp of rhythm (and when to let it fluctuate), and an overall assurance that is highly impressive. When it comes to the two Rameau pieces included on the CD, however, matters are less salient. Like Bach, Rameau did not write for the then-nonexistent modern piano, and Rameau’s music lies even more uneasily on piano than does Bach’s, if only because it has become commonplace to hear Bach played this way. So the Rameau works here, although prettily played, are less involving and less impressive than those by Debussy – which, to be sure, take up the vast majority of the disc. Furthermore, the underlying argument on the basis of which LaDeur created this recital is so esoteric and, in truth, so difficult to hear in performance, that it is, although accurate analytically, quite irrelevant to the effect of the music as LaDeur plays it. In other words, LaDeur here presents an elegant demonstration of the rightness of Sherter’s discovery and analysis of links between Rameau and Debussy – indeed, the disc is called “The Unbroken Line” – but in terms of what the vast majority of listeners will perceive, Sherter’s assertions and LaDeur’s support of them will be inaudible, irrelevant, or both. Listeners who simply want to hear a fine rendition of the specific Debussy pieces recorded here, and are content with only one of the two books of Préludes and only one of the two sequences of Images, will enjoy this recording. In terms of connections between Debussy and Rameau, though, most listeners will likely find it quite sufficient to remember that the second of the Images performed here bears the title, Hommage à Rameau.