Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – Bach complete keyboard works
***** (5 of 5)
Amid the seasonal rock fall of weird-shaped box sets and unopenable recorded turkeys, one project stands out as indispensable in both musical and moral dimensions.
In 1965, a little-known harpsichordist began recording the Bach keyboard works for a niche French label. By the time she finished ten years later, Zuzana Ruzickova and Erato had received every French record award, wresting harpsichord Bach away from deadhand American academics back to a middle-European vivacity. Ruzickova, resisting celebrity, Communism and the temptations of the music world, taught the next three generations of leading harpsichordists from her home in Prague.
A survivor of four Nazi concentration camps she brought – and still brings – a moral imperative to the act of playing, no note without meaning, no performance without perspective. Her Bach edifice has now been reissued by Erato on 20 CDs ahead of her 90th birthday in January 2017 and further critical analysis is superfluous. Play any disc and you will hear the living Bach, the fount of hope in dark times.
Where to begin? Start at the last disc with the concerto for flute (Jean-Pierre Rampal), violin (Josef Suk) and string orchestra (Prague Soloists), all playing to Ruzickova’s organic and often mischievous rhythm. This, and the succeeding Brandenburg concerto, is music that never loses its smile even as a tear trickles down one cheek. The artist at the keyboard is an immutable presence.
Norman Lebrecht has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc, writes a monthly essay for Standpoint magazine and is writing two more books.