Donald Satz wrote (September 12, 2000):
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830 - This is, with Partita No. 4, the longest of the six Partitas. The first movement is a Toccata which can be thought of in a prelude-fugue-prelude sequence. This is majestic music on the level of the last two movements of Beethoven's Hammerklavier. It covers just about every emotion known to humans, and a transcendent performance is a privilege to listen to. The prelude has the thrilling music, the fugue is thoroughly thought-provoking.
I started out listening to Tureck's version and could tell right away that hers was a special interpretation. She does cover all the emotions and finds all the magic in the movement. It's a very slow performance which probes at all times, but the excitement level is very strong in the prelude. This is one of the best performances of a keyboard piece that I've ever heard.
Schepkin had the dubious honor of being next. Yet, I was very impressed with his prelude - fast, virtuosic, and about as excellent as Tureck's. Schepkin's relative downfall is in the fugue; fantastic passages pass by without the strong impact provided by Tureck, and he's often too soft-focused. So, it's a very good version which is most appealing for Schepkin's dynamite prelude.
Hewitt is at the opposite end from Schepkin. Her prelude has neither Schepkin's thrilling qualities nor Tureck's strong expressiveness and poignancy. However, her fugue is perfectly paced with forward momentum to die for.
Pinnock is excellent in both prelude and fugue but not at Tureck's level. He tends to be on "automatic" concerning tempo, volume, pacing, and accenting. I think it's a version that will not wear as well over time as the previous three.
Leonhardt is a close second to Tureck. His prelude is equally transcendent; the only problem with the fugue is that Leonhardt uses little hesitations now and then which retard the music's flow for me. But, he often is at Tureck's level.
The Allemande is poignant music that grows in enjoyment with addtional listenings. The piece conveys intense longing, vulnerability, and urgency; the opportunities for displaying Bach's wonderful interplay between the voices are plentiful. Each version is highly rewarding, but Schepkin and Leonhardt stand out in my estimation. Leonhardt is slowest, and his voice playing is superb. He also provides a nobility to the music which is quite distinctive. Schepkin's sense of vulnerability is irresistable, and he brings out all the poetry in the movement.
The Corrente is a movement of syncopation and interplay between the voices. I'm sorry to say that four of the versions do little for me. Hewitt is the exception. Her syncopation is stunning, and the interplay is very interesting and musically infectious. An added bonus is Hewitt's fantasic bass projection. I am very impressed.
Next is a short Air with much forward momentum and a mischievous playfulness. Pinnock's performance is excellent. He fills up the entire sound stage, his playfulness is just right, he offers a great bounce to the music, and he has the best ending with both hands descending with style and strength. Tureck is too rigid, Leonhardt too dark, Schepkin too fast, and Hewitt too wayward - her superb bass projection in the Corrente becomes too forceful in the Air.
The Sarabande is slow and long with properties that remind me of a fantasia; ornmentation is extensive, and the sense of improvisation is strong. The music is very serious and poingnant with some rays of sunshine breaking through. I like Leonhardt's performance most; he's the best at contrasting the dark and light of the piece, and his pacing is superb. I should report that his version doesn't take long as he skips the repeats; in this case, it doesn't bother me at all. Tureck and Hewitt are very good; Tureck is strong and Hewitt highly poetic. Schepkin envelops his ornamentation with constant and short trills which I can only take in short doses. Pinnock just leaves me flat - a surface reading.
The Tempo di Gavotta is very appealing music that I can easily in my mind see folks happily dancing to; it has an infectious beat. In this and other reviews, I've had various complaints about Schepkin's performances. All those compliants, excepting for trills, applies to him in this piece. He's too fast for dancing, has awkward moments, tries to be cute, succeeds in being fussy, and engages in substantial key-banging. It's as if he's saying - "Watch me screw this up". I'm being hard on Schepkin, because he can be and has been so much better. The other four versions are very good and capture the music's pulse; Hewitt is quite urgent, Leonhardt has great pacing, Tureck is strong, and Pinnock is playful and delicate.
The Gigue concludes Partita No. 6 and the set as well. Personally, I find it unusual music to end the set. This fugue has as Hewitt puts it, "severe counterpoint", and I agree fully. Much of it is harsh in spirit with relief coming at needed intervals for contrast. And this music also has to "dance". That's not an easy combination to achieve, but Leonhardt does it superbly. His reading dances constantly, expresses the severity of mood, and has the most uplifiting passages as well. Pinnock, Schepkin, and Hewitt do quite well. Only Tureck did not satisfy; she sounds very stern throughout, and the dance quotient is rather low.
Summary for Partitas for Harpsichord:
Schepkin's set is good listening. In objective terms, his tempos are very fast and he skips many repeats. Both traits are usually disadvantageous compared to the rival versions. Also, he gets trill happy and engages in plenty of other habits I don't appreciate. Yet, I still enjoy his set. He is very musical and can be enlightening one moment after being annoying. This set is much better than his Goldberg Variations, and perhaps a little less pleasureable than his Well Tempered Clavier. It's not a waste of money, but it's far from being the version to have if you want only one.
Hewitt is an appreciable improvement over Schepkin. Her tempos are generally average, and she uses a very wide range of dynamics. I do find that with some of the movements, she and I are at a wide variance on conception. That obviously leads to rating her lower than otherwise. I think the set is well worthwhile, and for those who are more simpatico with her conceptual views than myself, this could be a great set.
Pinnock's set has received excellent reviews. I can't really argue with that assessment. I do prefer Leonhardt and Tureck, but only by small margins. His readings have no eccentricity about them; they are unmannered in the best sense of the word. Compared to Leonhardt, Pinnock is overtly bright and upbeat. He displays a fine sense of pacing and is highly tasteful as well. In a few of the movements having the greatest emotional depth, I felt that Pinnock did not dig deeply enough into the music's core. That's basically why I prefer Leonhardt and Tureck.
Leonhardt, as usual, displays a tough, somber, and austere posture. But that's often a surface response. Listen more deeply and he generally provides a wealth of good feeling when appropriate. His performances are on the slow side, and he's not a paragon of repeat observance. Leonhardt excellently represents his vision of Bach.
Tureck is even slower than Leonhardt, much slower. Most of the time it works wonderfully as she presents some great part playing, poignancy, and always a desire to delve into the heart of each piece. The recorded sound is decent enough for the most part although there are movements where it gets in the way of my enjoyment.
I haven't bought the Gould set as of yet. I'll remedy that since his performance of Partita No. 4 was so good. And Gould's reading of that Partita will likely be my strongest memory of these reviews. It is a revelation.
Upcoming reviews will include Bach's English Suites, Nielsen's String Quartets, and Beethoven's Christus am Olberge. They are already in the works.