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Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week: French Suites

By (October 14, 2016) No Comment

4796565J S Bach: The French Suites

**** (4 of 5)

What a difference a label can make. All his adult life, ever since he won the 1972 Leeds Piano Competition, Murray Perahia has recorded exclusively for Columbia Masterworks, known now as Sony Classical after a Japanese takeover. In a fragmenting record industry, Perahia’s was among the last label loyalists. CBS/Sony engineering was the sound by which he was known.

It began as a natural fit – New York pianist with New York label, joined at the hip by Vladimir Horowitz who admired Perahia above all young pianists. But Perahia moved to London and, over time, developed a sound that was rounder and softer than the Sony trademark. Sony, too, turned aggressively less classical, out for the quick crossover buck. Perhaia’s sensitivities were cut adrift and divorce became inevitable. It cannot have been easy to negotiate since this release, Perahia’s debut recording on Deutsche Grammophon, was made in Berlin in July 2013. It has taken more than three years for the project to overcome legal and commercial objections.

However, at the risk of self-repetition, what a difference a label can make. The DG sound in the Funkhaus Nalepstrasse changes the way we perceive Perahia. His contemplative style acquires an inner glow that is naturally compatible with his purpose. The microphones seem a little set back, less explicit, allowing greater freedom. Perahia, in the zone, is not afraid to smudge a tone in pursuit of a greater thought. In the new ambience he seems so much more vivid and alive.

Oddly, nowhere in the DG booklet does it say what piano he is playing, but my ear suggests a Steinway. You can’t expect an artist to burn all his bridges in a day.

Perahia approaches the suites as a conversation with himself, or a hidden part of himself. This is Bach engaged as auto-analysis or self-healing, step after step on a long road to self-understanding. But there is also a playfulness, a mischief, that suggests the artist is enjoying himself a lot more than he normally lets on. The 4th suite, in E-flat major, positively dances with joie-de-vivre. I even caught a Gould-like rumble, a harmonic growl of satisfaction.

Sony have, as it happens, issued a spoiler release of Perahia’s past Bach recordings. Play it side by side with this joyous self-reinvention and you will instantly hear the difference. Like Horowitz before him, Perahia has found a fine and final home.

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.

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