Not so long ago, admitting to a preference for Bach on a modern grand piano rather than the harpsichord could seriously damage your street cred. But the pendulum has swung back and in the last decade we’ve seen performers like Angela Hewitt, Simone Dinnerstein and Murray Perahia play works originally written for the harpsichord in a grand, sensuous and often personal style on the modern instrument.
Indeed, it was a decade ago that Perahia staked his claim firmly in the modern-instrument camp, teaming up with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to record Bach’s seven keyboard concertos, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; the Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord and the solo "Italian" Concerto. Sony has just re-released these on a 3-CD set, which is our Album of the Week.
Of course, the debate on whether Bach’s keyboard works should be performed on piano or harpsichord -- with modern or period instruments accompanying -- rages on. Some find the harpsichord dry and soulless; others find the modern grand anachronistic, and not exactly what Bach had in mind. What is important is whether the listener is convinced by the performance he or she hears. Perahia is no doubt a sensualist, prizing expressive warmth and beauty of tone above other qualities -- qualities that he draws out from the orchestra as well.
Still, there’s also a sharp rhythmic profile and keen textural clarity in Perahia’s Bach playing. He brings out the subtle variations of articulation in the D major concerto's Finale and the G minor's slow movement, for instance; his trills and runs in the F major are breathtakingly clean. In the final movement of the Concerto No. 1, Perahia and the orchestra’s continuous interweaving figures vividly animate the music. Never shy when it comes to embellishment, Perahia seizes every opportunity.
How do you prefer Bach's keyboard music: on the modern piano or harpsichord? Leave a comment below:
Murray Perahia, keyboard and conductor
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Available at Arkivmusic.com