Demus Bach eloquence westminster

Jörg Demus (piano)
The Bach Recordings for Westminster
rec. 1955-1963, Vienna
Eloquence 484 2053 [11 CDs: 628]

Jörg Demus (1928-2019), born in upper Austria and admitted to the Vienna Musikakademie at the age of eleven, went on to achieve an eminent place in the pianistic hierarchy. His teachers were Walter Kerschbaumer in Vienna and then two great performers, Giesking and Yves Nat. Even though he considered himself a collector of antiquities – old keyboard instruments to the fore – rather than a pianist, something that collectors will find quaint or absurd, according to taste, he brought a sober, refined, classically-minded aesthetic to everything he played. His contemporary and fellow Austrian Paul Badura-Skoda – they both recorded for Westminster, as we’ll see – outlived Demus by a mere five months but formed part of the post-war Austrian piano vanguard. Demus recorded a lot for Westminster and Eloquence has taken the sensible decision to focus on Bach. You can find his Franck and Fauré disc for Westminster in one of their big cube boxes and my colleague David Dunsmore has already reviewed Eloquence’s twofer (review) of Demus’ Schubert, recorded in 1958 for DG. The Westminster discs collated by Eloquence were all recorded in Vienna between 1955 and 1963.

When it came to Bach, Demus constantly sought the most scholarly editions. By 21 he had memorized both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier and had dispensed with editions with which he felt unreconciled. His final choice was Tovey’s edition. Recorded in mono in July 1955, and occupying four of the eleven discs in this Original Jacket edition, it demonstrates his great virtues as a classically-minded exponent of the repertoire. His playing is direct and unsentimental though not without expressive depth: listen, for instance, to the Fugue of the C sharp minor, No.4. There is a naturalness to his pacing and phrasing and to the music’s flow that disarms criticism. He is not, however, plain-speaking and uneventful – there is virility when required, as in the Fifth Prelude of the second book, and in the exceptional voicings of No.9 in E major, and playfulness in the Prelude of 15 in G major. There is a fluidity and consistency to his playing that, coupled with his scrupulous avoidance of exaggeration, generates a clarity that proves compelling. If anything, Book II is even better than Book I, but it would hard, and rather pointless, to adjudicate between them. This is Bach playing of focused and selfless purity.

The Six Partitas occupy CDs 5 and 6 and unlike the WTC are in stereo. Once again there is clarity, appropriate accenting, an internal sense of motion and an unflashy command of the keyboard. The pert rhythm he generates in the first Menuet of the First Partita, partly a function of his bass pointing and use of dynamics, is as fine as the grandeur of the opening of the C minor Partita or the drive he generates, incrementally, in its Rondeaux. He may well be parsimonious with repeats, as was the fashion in recordings of the time, but the humanity of his playing is never in doubt. Sarabandes are expressive but not maudlin, Gigues are fast but not breathless or cavalier. Fugues remain crystal clear.

There are two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, the first in mono from 1953 and the stereo made a decade later. Again, you won’t expect many repeats but there is a remarkable consistency between the two recordings, the slightly more extended nature of the stereo (just short of 54 minutes) largely explained by the repeats in the Black Pearl variation. Both performances have a deeply considered logic. Tempo relationships have been internalised and considered, the architecture and structure of the work assimilated. It creates a seamless narrative, and they’re both performances that – despite the dogmatic nature of Bachian performance-scholarship over the decades – one can listen to repeatedly without tiring. One small peculiarity; in the stereo remake he keeps the pedal down at the end of the Quodlibet preceding the Aria da capo, so that one flows into the other, the only thing I didn’t really care for in his performance.

CD 9 is a rather miscellaneous one. It contains a commanding, gravely phrased reading of the Capriccio in B flat major ‘On the Departure of a Beloved Brother’, BWV 992, the jubilant fugal section of which is prepared for with infinite care. The selections from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebooks contain well contrasted morsels as well as a now more extended, repeat-full version of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations (no one could possibly get tired of hearing Demus in this). No less striking is his playing of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor. The Italian Concerto is rhythmically lively and wholly satisfying. I’ve not mentioned Demus’ tonal qualities thus far, largely because everything about his playing seems to direct the listener to the essence of the music, but his tonal lustre in the slow movement – whilst never utilised as a device in itself – is memorably lovely.

The final two discs are devoted to the Keyboard Concertos, two with his colleague Badura-Skoda, and all in stereo with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra directed by Kurt Redel. The conductor, Demus recalled, was known as something of a purist. One of the concertos features not Demus but Badura-Skoda and that’s BWV1053. In BWV1060 the sonority the two pianists generate in the slow movement, over the merest skein of orchestral support, is something to hear; the music emerging as a tapestry of terpsichorean grace. The finale, like all the finales, is uplifting and rhythmically generous. The recording is also interesting, with a very wide spatial separation of the pianos: very striking.

Demus’s long-lived experience in these works is audible throughout. He never suggests a harpsichord sonority; he uses the modern piano richly and warmly, drawing out colour. He is never monochromatic or grey but fully involved in exploring and expressing the music. He was interested in clavichords and indeed harpsichords, and collected them, but was never dogmatic, and never became involved in the fault lines that demarcated performances of Baroque music.

He remade The Well-Tempered Clavier later on LP for Intercord, if you can find it, and other things too on CD, and there are other boxes, such as the 21-CD set that includes Debussy, some of his Bach (the Partitas and Goldberg Variations only) and Schumann. His discography is vast. However, Eloquence’s box successfully focuses on his early Bach Westminsters, a cornerstone of his recorded legacy, and is graced with fine photographs, a thoughtful, intelligent note from Peter Quantrill, and excellent transfers from Chris Bernauer. The performances in this box – cultured, cultivated and eloquent – stand the test of time.

Jonathan Woolf

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CDs 1–2    
The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book I, BWV 846-869

CDs 3–4
The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book II, BWV 870-893
rec. July 1955, Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna

CDs 5–6
Partitas Nos. 1–6, BWV 825-830
rec. September 1962 and June 1963, Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna

CD 7
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
rec. June 1953

CD 8
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988  
rec. June 1963, Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
CD 9
Capriccio in B flat major ‘On the Departure of a Beloved Brother’, BWV 992
Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach (selections)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971
rec. June 1961, Vienna

CD 10
Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052
Keyboard Concerto in E major, BWV 1053

CD 11
Concerto in C major for Two Keyboards, Strings and Continuo, BWV 1061
Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056
Concerto in C minor for Two Keyboards, Strings and Continuo, BWV 1060
Keyboard Concerto in A major, BWV 1055
Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda (pianos)
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Kurt Redel
rec. June 1960, Vienna