Bach’s keyboard partitas were his first published works, his opus 1. These six suites were actually the last suites Bach wrote for keyboard, and owe a great deal to French influence. These works are relatively popular, and have been recorded by most of the world’s leading harpsichordists. Lucy Carolan is up against some stiff competition – some of the better recordings available are those by Scott Ross, Trevor Pinnock and Edward Parmentier. Yet Carolan proves that she is worthy of these musicians, and her recording belongs up there in the top flight.
Carolan approaches these works in a very direct manner, focusing clearly on the various movements in their basic origins – that of dance movements. Her rhythm is lively and energetic, without being overly fast, and her tone and phrasing easily adopt the wide variety of forms and styles that make up these suites.
She sometimes strays a bit from the text, such as when she adds virtuoso runs to the repeat of the minuet of the first partita. Yet this is never over-exaggerated; her ‘improvisations’ fit well with the spirit of the works.
While her playing sometimes lacks the necessary depth in the faster movements, as if she lets the rhythm take precedence over the notes, she uses an attractive light touch in the slow movements, such as the sarabandes of partita no. 5 and no. 2. She also shows a very judicious use of ornamentation, such as in the allemande of the 3rd partita, where her ornaments fit perfectly with the music, and do not sound like showing off, which is often the case.
Carolan attacks the opening toccata of partita no. 6 with a great deal of verve and vitality. It opens with a series of arpeggiatic flourishes, before moving on to a second fugal section. Carolan not only begins this partita in the perfect mood, but negotiates the change ideally as well.
Carolan comes into her own in the majestic partita no. 4, which is, perhaps, the most beautiful of all of Bach’s keyboard suites. The balance and contrasts between the various movements is exemplary, and her playing of the monumental allemande, full of emotion and lyricism (one of the longest at over 10 minutes), is almost perfect.
This recording uses two different harpsichords, and each of the two discs, containing three partitas, alternates between the two instruments, with very different characters. The recording itself is excellent, and the sound is rich and alive.
An excellent recording of Bach’s partitas, which, while perhaps not as masterful as those by Parmentier and Pinnock, deserves a place in the pantheon of the best available versions of these works.