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Ludwig Van
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LEBRECHT LISTENS | A Bach Prescription For Choosy, Stressed Out Ears

By Norman Lebrecht on May 18, 2018

Photo: Annie Spratt
Photo: Annie Spratt

J S Bach: Goldberg Variations/Sonatas and Partitas (Delphian/Navona)

★★★★★/★★ (each out of five)

In times of stress, I reach for Bach in the raw, one instrument, one pair of hands. I’m choosy who I listen to when the nerves are frayed. The immortal interpretations – Gould in the Goldbergs, Milstein in the Sonatas and Partitas — are too profound, too perfect, to afford prompt and gentle relief. Two new releases are just what the soul doctor ordered.

Peter Hill is an English pianist, a Messaien expert who studied with Nadia Boulander and taught at the University of Sheffield. I have come across him on record and radio, never in the concert hall. His approach to Bach is unfussy, the notes as they were written, played without dynamic extremes on a modern Steinway D in a good acoustic at Cardiff University.

The no-frills Hill is hypnotic, never soporific. The ear is riveted to what he does with ten fingers and quivers at what he might do next. This is music at its most organic. It goes straight into my emergency kit.

Thomas Bowes is an English violinist who has played concertos with the London orchestras and famed solos on Hollywood soundtracks. On a Bach pilgrimage around British churches, he plays a 1659 Amati in environments for which these sonatas and partitas were clearly intended. His pristine recording venue at Abbey Road is just a tad sterile.

Bowes calls the set ‘a journey … for a soul in crisis’, an overlay of interpretation that brings me, from time to time, up against an excessively personal expression, too swift a contrast of ff and pp, too interventionist an approach. This is a pick-and-choose set. I liked the second sonata best of all. Others will respond differently. That’s the wonder of Bach — he’s all things to all ears, for the best of times and the worst.

J S Bach: Goldberg Variations (Peter Hill/Delphian) is available from amazon.ca and iTunes.

J S Bach: Sonatas and Partitas (Thomas Bowes/Navona) is available from amazon.ca.

Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht is one of the most widely-read commentators on music, culture and cultural politics. He is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Standpoint, Sinfini and other publications. His blog, Slipped Disc, is among the most widely read cultural sites online, breaking exclusive stories and campaigning against human abuse and acts of injustice in the cultural industries.

Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht is one of the most widely-read commentators on music, culture and cultural politics. He is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Standpoint, Sinfini and other publications. His blog, Slipped Disc, is among the most widely read cultural sites online, breaking exclusive stories and campaigning against human abuse and acts of injustice in the cultural industries.
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