|REVIEWS: calico classics CCCR102 Bach recital (J. Crossland)|
The uncredited booklet notes (presumably Crossland’s) comment that “Bach on the piano is not so much an anachronism as an opportunity to show the variety and imagination of [his] heart”. This is a view promoted ardently by Angela Hewitt whose piano Bach [referring to Hewitt’s new Hyperion CD] has surely converted many a born-again authenticist. She (Hewitt) remains my benchmark for the English Suite, Partita and her dramatic Chromatic Fantiasia at least – honours are more or less evenly divided for the BWV912 Toccata. Hewitt never exaggerates – her Prelude to BWV807 is measured and stately, Crossland’s so slow that it loses some directional impulse. Similarly, she plays both the sarabandes so slowly that they have virtually forgotten their dance origins.
While Crossland plays Bach very attractively, Hewitt communes with the spirit of the music and invites us to share the magic – of an Allemande floating like gossamer, of a crescendo expanding infinitesimally over half a movement, of breathtakingly hushed tone. The recorded piano sound in Crossland’s new disc is intimate, a Steinway in a richly furnished drawing room rather than in a concert hall.
It may be a cliché to say so, but Bach is a difficult composer to play on the piano. Absolute control and dexterity is required for such ornate and exposed lines: left hand parts in particular require exceptional agility, of a sort one seldom encounters in the core Romantic repertory. It’s important to be aware of performance practice in Bach’s time, and to know how to steer a course between the resonance of the modern piano and the percussive sonority of the harpsichord, between overstatement and under-characterisation. Small wonder that celebrated Bach players (one thinks of Fischer, Lipatti, Gould, Richter, Gavrilov, Brendel, Argerich, Schiff, Perahia and Goode) often move into this repertory in their maturity, having previously explored more overtly virtuosic or demanding roles elsewhere - like serving an apprenticeship! Hewitt is the obvious exception here, having made her reputation in Bach, and now ‘progressing’ into Ravel and Chopin.
Jill Crossland was born in Yorkshire, and studied at Chethams and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Even as a student, it seems she inclined towards Bach, performing the entire ‘48’ from memory, winning the Pinsen Prize for her Bach playing, and reaching the semi-final stages of the 8th International Bach Competition in Leipzig. The CD liner doesn’t tell us how old she is.
I have no doubts concerning her abilities: her fingerwork is polished, her sense of phrase beyond question, and she is well able to characterise the different dance movements, or the many meanderings of the Chromatic Fantasia. The opening movements (the Prelude, Allemande and Courante) of the English Suite are stylish and secure, and confidently raise one’s expectations. But I have to say I found at least some of what follows less than convincing, and at times so artistically doubtful as to be baffling, even bizarre. The Sarabande of the same suite (which she takes slowly) finds her introducing rubato in such quantities, and in both voices, as to disturb the pulse: at first, it looked likely to be subtle, but it soon reached unnecessary and destructive proportions. But the singing quality of her playing encourages the listener to stay with her.
She plays the Præludium of the B flat Partita extraordinarily slowly: I’m open-minded about these things, but I’d be hard pressed to find any evidence that Bach intended it to go like this! And yet the Allemande and Corrente are beautifully fluid. In the Sarabande, again, very slow, the right hand semiquavers and demisemiquavers are so seldom left to speak for themselves, and so often distorted with little holdings-up and rushings (in the name of shaping?) as to spoil all sense of line: one almost loses one’s bearings. But again, she redeems herself with a mercurial Gigue.
This disc is the proverbial curate’s egg: very good in parts, and thought-provoking (make of that what you want) in others. I hope Ms Crossland will find a way of allowing Bach’s music to speak for itself, without undue interference: and yet much of this disc shows that she already knows this. I suggest that lessons with Angela Hewitt or Richard Goode (their CDs will surely suffice) are called for!
The recorded sound here is good: appropriately, for what the CD booklet tells us is an ‘Astounding Sounds’ recording. Annoying that both inner and outer pages of the notes list the items of this recital in a different sequence to that she actually adopts: so the D major Toccata is last, not first!
There shouldn’t be any problem obtaining this CD, which is distributed worldwide by the Divine Art Record Company in Northallerton: you can get full details from www.divine-art.com. You’ll also find there details of Ms Crossland’s previous Calico Classics disc (CCCR101) of Mozart (K533/494 in F) and Beethoven (Op 31/2 in D minor & Op 101 in A flat) sonatas. She’s also recorded the Goldberg Variations for Apex - 0927 49979-2.
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