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Gramophone awards shortList 2015

Compelling on many levels: Piotr Anderszewski rises above some fearsome competition in his performances of three of Bach’s English Suites

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p h o t o G r a p h y address and maturity. Above all, they are fresh and joyous.

How demanding they are. On the title-page of the collected edition of 1731, brought out as his Op 1 and a selfpublishing job, Bach said he had composed them ‘for music lovers, to delight their senses’. They soon made a great noise in the musical world but earned him, too, a reputation for their technical difficulty: as if, as a contemporary put it, the composer had expected ‘what he alone could do on the keyboard’. An early player of them, said to have been accomplished, described them as ‘making me seem like a beginner each time’.

Complex music – but not complicated. Levit’s achievement is to miss nothing of their scope and variety as compositions while conveying what it is that makes each one a unity, not an anthology, demanding to be performed complete. Where other practitioners offer regular accents and a perhaps over-cautious traversal, tethered to the notes, Levit never fails to project a commanding overview – an aerial perspective, almost – in addition to the detail of phrasing and articulations and the nooks and crannies of melodic lines. Only the most gifted interpreters manage both.

It energises his performances and makes them seem to inhabit a state of grace. And it contributes to our enjoyment in another way, drawing us on as we listen and keeping us curious as to what lies around the next corner. A first impression might be of quicker tempi than usual and of a fleetness that challenges us to keep up. Yet one quickly registers that nothing, in fact, is rushed or driven too hard – not a phrase or a paragraph, nor even (most important) the execution of an ornament.

I like very much Levit’s ornaments and embellishments in general. They are always a living feature of the line, arising from within, not stuck on from without. In addition they show awareness of performance practice and what may be appropriate in each instance, with decoration added to ‘second times’ discreetly and with an air of spontaneity, and never to excess. Levit has a sure judgment of when to leave well alone, as CPE Bach advised when discussing this aspect of his father’s music. The majestic Sarabande of No 1 in B flat (disc 1, tr 4) gets a minimum of graces in its repeats – barely noticeable indeed. But there needs to be some if ‘second time through’ is to have any sense; otherwise why do it?

The playing of the Gigues in the Partitas – and the final Capriccio in No 2 in C minor – invite the performer’s virtuosity as a welcome guest to the feast. Levit doesn’t disappoint. Bach developed these movements to make thrilling conclusions, just as he had made the opening of each work something imposing and unexpected. That was possibly his most original contribution to the suite of his time: there’s a Praeludium in No 1, a three-part Sinfonia in No 2, a French Overture in No 4 (the D major), a Praeambulum in No 5 and a grand Toccata and Fugue in No 6 (E minor). They help to make each partita announce itself as something ambitious and a unity, not just a succession of dances. With Levit, if you start at the beginning, you go on to the end; no question. Bach mediates between the French and the Italian styles in the course of the six works, and Levit doesn’t miss a trick. Finally, let me praise his cantabile playing (a singing style), which Bach extolled to his students as a constant aim.

Harpsichord or piano? Forget it. Or rather, let us have both. If on the piano, however, which isn’t a second-best, I incline to those exponents who are not apologetic about their instrument and at gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2015 25

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