Donald Satz wrote (August 23, 2000):
Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827 - Angela Hewitt, in her liner notes, points out the relative lack of popularity of Bach's 3rd Partita and also notes the "unassuming" nature of the opening Fantasia which is a two part invention. I must admit that the Fantasia does not come close to possessing the depth or inventiveness of the Sinfonia of Partita No. 2 or the coming Overture to Partita No. 4. The Fantasia does not have much variety, and I consider it up to the performer to maximize the level of differentiation which does exist in the music.
Tureck is the best at providing maximum variety and in ways which enhance the listening experience. The most incisive example is the powerhouse ending she delivers without losing lyricism. Schepkin's ending goes toward the soft end and concludes in a whimpish fashion. Schepkin and the others do have their virtues, but only Tureck captures my imagination. She had me thinking of assembly line "human clones" eventually crushing the natural folk. As for tempo, the versions are in the 2 minute range except for Leonhardt at close to 3 minutes; I didn't find that it made a bit of difference. That could well be because Leonhardt plays the music in a very "straight" manner, and that approach will not win the day.
The Allemande is elegant and graceful music tinged with regret and reflection. Tureck has the disadvantage of the worst sound I've yet encountered in her set; for me it takes center stage and results in a version to bypass. The other four performances are very good. Leonhardt is slow paced and incisive with a stunning hesitation. Pinnock is faster and smoother, but just as enjoyable. Hewitt is rather fussy in the first theme but dynamic in the second. Schepkin could have had the best performance; his pacing and shading are superb. However, his trills tend to dominate the musical landscape. These aren't your ordinary trills; they are highly pronounced. Hewitt uses trills also, but they are subdued and add to musical enjoyment. Overall, although highly worthy, none of these performances is outstanding.
Next is the Corrente which is powerful and vigorous music with dotted rhythms and octave leaps. Although the first theme has plenty of momentum, it's the second theme which I consider the heart of the piece. This is where the real power resides, particuarly with two outstanding climaxes and their inevitable build-ups. Leonhardt is the only one who really provides the power and thrill of the second theme's climaxes; the build-ups are outstanding. The other versions are good but somewhat lacking in power. Tureck uses a staccato approach and provides the best first theme; her second theme is only sporadically exciting. Hewitt frequently alters her volume, and it disturbs the music's flow; her level of delicacy is too pronounced. Pinnock has a steady volume but never lets loose completely. Schepkin is a little choppy and excitement is not consistent.
The smooth flowing Sarabande is aristocratic and tender in nature with a generally positive disposition. Pinnock, usually faster than Leonhardt, is just as slow-paced this time to good advantage. Both versions supply the basic beauty of the music. Hewitt's performance is softer and more gentle; it works well within its elegant cover. Schepkin is the quickest version and initially seemed rushed. However, there's an urgency to the interpretation which is very appealing and wins my approval. Tureck clocks in at over 5 minutes with a very slow performance which is very tender and probing. Each of the five versions is highly effective.
Next is the Burlesca which I find usually elicits very different interpretations. Tender, strong, fast, sunny, dynamic, pompous, lyrical, measured, wild, and many more adjectives apply to this music depending on the performance. Schepkin is too fast, has too many trills, and too many changes in mood/pacing/dynamics. He gives me the impression of not knowing how he really wants to perform the piece; he's all over the place.
Leonhardt, Hewitt, and Tureck are much better in the Burlesca. Leonhardt and Tureck are rock steady and provide a delightfully sunny reading when needed. Hewitt is excellently nuanced and the most probing. Pinnock is in another category altogether. He is perpetual motion, power, and quite thrilling. Right out of the starting blocks, it's as if he's announcing, "I'm coming through, so get out of my way". Since Pinnock's performance misses none of the lyricism in the music, his is easily my favorite recording of the five.
The order of things changes little in the Scherzo which is music of great virtuosity and strength. Pinnock continues with his "perpetual motion" approach, and I love it. The other versions are fine, including Schepkin who behaves himself very well and provides an exciting reading.
The Partita in A minor concludes with one of Bach's best Gigues; this is my favorite movement of the Partita, a three part fugue. "All Hell Breaks Loose" is how I would describe the music. Of course, a great performance also has to be controlled and appropriately lyrical. Hewitt exercises too much control and is overly civilized. Schepkin is too helter-skelter and lacking control. Pinnock is better with an exciting reading which still lacks a little mayhem.
Tureck and Leonhardt are the best in the Gigue. Tureck best projects the enveloping deconstruction of the established order while maintaining precise control. Leonhardt really doesn't subscribe to the "breaking loose" theme, but his sense of urgency and lyricism can not be beat.
Summary of Partita No. 3 in A minor:
I don't consider this Partita to be one of Bach's best compositions; it lacks the depth and inventiveness of his best works. However, the piece picks up considerably with the excellent Burlesca and Scherzo, and the Gigue is outstanding music.
Leonhardt, Pinnock, and Tureck give the best performance of the A minor. They are the strongest in the last three movements and as good as the others in the previous ones. Hewitt and Schepkin have some fine traits, but also exhibit a mixture of problems. Hewitt is often underpowered and too frequently changes volume levels. Schepkin gets "trill happy" at times and his choppy playing is a distraction.
Leonhardt still enjoys a healthy advantage over the four other sets. Since some consider his general playing to be overly austere and somewhat plodding, this is a good time to assess that premise. He tends to be slow-paced and aristocratic. I can understand the notion that his interpretations lack sufficient variety and have no smiles on their faces, but I can't agree. I feel the variety and smiles are there, but they are subtle in nature. The man isn't "happy-go-lucky", but he isn't a sourpuss either.
I did miss having more than the five versions to listen to. For Partita No. 4, a fantastic work, Gould, Kahane, and Goode are added to the mix. My memories of Kahane's recording on Nonesuch are of the highest order, but I don't have any problem starting from scratch. Although it surprises me every time when my opinion of a performance goes way up or down through a survey, it occurs with enough frequency that I expect it to happen regularly.