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Robert Levin: ‘A musical movement is above all a story’

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Divine dances: Robert Levin on Bach’s Six Partitas

9:25, 24th October 2019

Robert Levin considers the incredible variety of dance forms that appear in Bach’s Six Partitas, and finds inspiration for his playing in annotated manuscripts of this music

This project was born out of my friendship with Eric Rouyer, founder of the record label Le Palais des Dégustateurs (The Palace of the Tasters). Our collaboration began a few years ago with an album of pieces for violin and piano by Mozart. Eric gathered several unfinished scores by Mozart, which I completed and recorded with the violinist Gérard Poulet.

Eric suggested that I record Bach’s Partitas, one of the summits of the composer’s output for keyboard. Several new editorial sources for this repertoire have recently come to light, including copies of the first edition, published under the supervision of the master, and manuscripts copied from this source which contain additions by Bach’s immediate entourage, or by the composer himself.

As a result, these pieces have been enhanced with extraordinary new pages. Some of them were entirely reconstructed by Bach students, such as Johann Gottfried Müthel (1728-1788), the author of the extravagant version of the Sinfonia from Partita No 2 included on my album. His works are reminiscent of those of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788).

The various manuscripts of the Partitas testify to Bach’s acute sense of adaptation. Each time he worked on a score, he added free ornamentations to his student’s copy. This means I can play some passages several times in a row, each time very differently. It is also important to realise that Bach’s music was composed then revised, sometimes over several years, allowing it to evolve considerably. From one version to another, Bach complicates his writing. Ultimately all manuscript variants are ‘admissible’ and the pianist can – and must – choose. I have included alternative versions of some pieces in the third disc of this set.

For example, my main source for the Gigue from Partita No 3 is Bach’s published version, but there is a variant of the second part in which the inversion of the subject is more rigorous. This came to us courtesy of three first edition copies from members of Bach’s entourage. More controversially, there are two versions of the Tempo di Gavotta and some of the Gigue from Partita No 6 which offer radically different notations. It seems unlikely to me that Bach was careful to write the rhythm of the Tempo di Gavotta as two semiquavers plus a quaver if he wanted three quavers! That is why I have presented the literal version first and the triplet version as an alternative.

The Gigue is more complicated. Bach only wrote two Gigues in binary meter (the other appears in French Suite No 1). We know that in the previous century, binary notation was performed in a ternary manner, for example by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667). So it is possible that Bach copied the binary style of writing without necessarily knowing that a ternary execution would be involved.

A musical movement is above all a story. In my view, the most important thing is that the public is convinced by the story you tell through interpretation. It’s all in the tone and precision of detail, which means respecting the logic of harmonic sequences, their inner life.

Bach seems to have intended all his works for keyboard to have an educational aspect. He teaches not only how to master the instrument, but also how to understand the language and structure. Regarding the Partitas, let’s not forget the subtitle of the 1726 edition of Partita No 1, which may be somewhat misleading: ‘Gallantries composed for the pleasant entertainment of music lovers’. Yet this music also forms part of the composer’s first volume of exercises for the clavier (Erster Teil der Clavierübung).

Bach’s Partitas offer a synthesis of dances borrowed from all over Europe. We know the steps of the dances used, which in turn determines the tempo for each piece. Take the minuet as an example. Bach specifies ‘Tempo di menuetto’ in Partita No 5, not ‘Menuet’. This means it is not a dance proper.

Each dance reveals a different nature from the others. The slow Allemandes of the last Partitas, for example, are philosophical pieces that encourage a state of contemplation. It also implies that the tempo, chosen at the beginning, remains coherent with the dances that follow. Sometimes you have to sing the music before you play it, though in Bach’s compositions, music remains fundamentally instrumental. Everything is always in motion: the rhythms remain very flexible, the discourse sounds like an improvisation, and yet it is not one!

Although in the past I have recorded Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on historic instruments, I think it is better for the public to hear the Partitas on a modern piano. You might object that Bach did not compose for the piano (except for The Musical Offering, whose two ricercars are designed for a Silbermann pianoforte). However, I don’t let the sound of the modern piano intoxicate me, despite the rich timbres it offers. Playing Bach on the piano is at some level an act of transcription. I use the pedal discreetly to get closer to the touch of the harpsichord, whose memory of articulation is needed in this music.

Whenever I play the Partitas, I am aware of their incredible variety of dance forms. At the same time, it is essential to create atmospheres that go beyond the conventions specific to the movements of these dances. It doesn’t matter what instrument is played. In these scores, the harmonic evolutions, the intertwining of the tones, everything is redefined permanently with inexhaustible inventiveness. All the more inexhaustible, the repeated bars offer a new discourse, as if the interpreter was reaching out to the listener.

My new recording takes advantage of the ornaments added to the original text but above all I have adopted a creative will, allowing myself great freedom in the melodic animation as well as harmonically in the repetitions. Most of variants I employ were improvised during the recording sessions.

The fundamental spirit of my interpretation is reflected in the expression of faith that brightly animates each of Bach’s notes: Jesus Juve (Jesus, help me), In nomine Jesu (In the name of Jesus) and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory only to God) adorn his scores. I am not trying to make Bach’s sound ‘pretty’. It remains technical and virtuoso, and the performer’s duty is to balance intellectual discipline with musical expression. It needs both to convince and to move.

Interview by Stéphane Friédérich

Robert Levin’s new recording of JS Bach’s Six Partitas is now available from Le Palais des Dégustateurs. lepalaisdesdegustateurs.com

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