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Bach: Six Partitas from the “Clavier-Übung” I, BWV 825-830. Rafael Puyana, harpsichord. SanCtuS. (3 CDs).
One of the most wonderfully fascinating recordings of Bach’s Partitas BWV 825-830 in decades, Rafael Puyana’s version on the SanCtuS label is a remarkable interpretative and sonic achievement that also stands as a monument to Puyana (1931-2013). Puyana plays these masterpieces on a harpsichord that is itself a masterpiece: a 1740 Hieronymus Albrecht Hass instrument that the performer spent decades attempting to restore, ending up having full restoration done twice before the harpsichord was restored to a glory that has to be heard to be understood. A three-manual harpsichord with features far more common in German instruments than in the better-known French and Flemish ones of its time, the Hass harpsichord is so beautifully decorated that the extensive illustrations of it accompanying this recording are a joy in and of themselves. And the sound! These are analog recordings from about 1985, made in Puyana’s own home in Paris, and they show a performer thoroughly at home in every sense, playing music as if he owns it on an instrument that he does own and in which he obviously and gloriously revels. These are very complicated pieces to interpret, their notation anything but clear to the modern performer – Puyana explains some of the complexities in the liner notes that he himself provided for these recordings. What he has done with the music is exhilarating, bringing forth its amazing dancelike qualities, ing tempos that are quite justifiable (often on the fast side) and phrasings that make perfect sense based on scholarly studies but that are rarely chosen by modern harpsichordists, much less by the pianists who often play these works. Every single movement of the Partitas is delivered with strength, accuracy, joy and emotional involvement, from the ones that are achingly beautiful to those that feel danceable even some 300 years after their composition in 1731. Fascinatingly, Puyana also includes an appendix of sorts by offering two versions of the concluding Gigue of the final Partita, first playing it with a triplet rhythm that he prefers but that makes the work sound distinctly jazzy – an amazing effect, but one that Puyana admits may be out of keeping with Bach’s own time. He then plays the same movement in more-conservative style, allowing listeners to decide which one they prefer. This is an extraordinary three-CD set in every way, from the remarkable performances to the astonishing sound of the harpsichord to the tremendous beauty of the set’s presentation. It is a deep shame that Puyana did not live to see this superb testimony to his art and dedication released – but it is wonderful, from a listener’s standpoint, to have so heartfelt, beautifully produced and superbly performed a version of this magnificent music.
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