Bach Keyboard Works Vol9 Martins Labor LAB7025-2

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2006 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
English Suite No 1 in A, BWV 807 [20.43]
English Suite No 2 in G, BWV 808 [17.12]
English Suite No 3 in A, BWV 809 [25.02]
Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D, BWV 903 [14.02]
João Carlos Martins (piano)
rec. 1994, Salle Bulgaria, Sofia, Bulgaria
Labor Records LAB7025-2 [77]

João Carlos Martins began his project of recording the complete Bach keyboard works on the piano forty years ago. The project was interrupted several times, but is now again underway, and Labor Records has announced that they will release the entire set.

At the time of his earliest recordings, Bach on the piano was not so respectable as it is now, and Martins’ style was shocking to some, particularly Glenn Gould fans who believed their idol was 100% authentic in his piano style (he wasn’t) and hence who thought of Martins as a rebel, a renegade. I have Martins’ 1964 complete WTK and love every minute of it, but then sometimes I’m easy.

Agi Jambor, also Mrs. Claude Rains, studied with Edwin Fischer and taught at the Peabody Conservatory. She launched her career as a Bach pianist on Capitol Records just in time to have herself blown offstage by Glenn Gould’s spectacular debut recording. Her thoughtful but affecting Bach style illuminated much in these scores and these monophonic recordings are long overdue for re-release on CD. Mrs. Rains thereafter hated Glenn Gould, and when her husband proposed to collaborate with Gould she threw a violently uninhibited tantrum in the recording studio determined to wreck the project — unsuccessfully, it turned out, and the recording continued. Whether you would invite Mrs. Rains to your party or not, her Bach playing is wonderful and you should have the chance to hear it.

Bach on the piano is now more respectable, and as time passes, Martins’ star has risen. More people would approve of Agi Jambor than would approve of Martins. There are critics driven to purple faced apoplexy upon hearing Mr. Martins, and just as many who think he’s a genius. I think it is good news that his recordings will be available again, especially the earlier ones. Impulsiveness comes more naturally to a 24 year old pianist than to a 54 year old. Martins does what he wants. He both ignores ornaments that are in the score and adds some that are not. He ignores repeats and adds others. He not only ornaments but embellishes the slow movements with cadenzas, flourishes, apoggiaturas, passing tones—you name it. Sometimes he sounds like Glenn Gould, sometimes like Paderewski. If you would argue that he has “no right” to do these things, then you shouldn’t listen to these recordings.

As for this recording, much as I hate to agree with Raymond Tuttle, I would argue in favor of Mr. Martins’ right to play the music his way, and recommend that many will really like it this way. Genuine individuality is rare in recordings made these days. The digital recorded sound is excellent, the piano technique is clean, controlled, and detailed. That said, I must then say that I prefer Schiff on the English Suites and Jambor on the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. They both achieve a sense of freedom while staying very much in view of the score; their pianism illuminates aspects of the music in ways that the harpsichord cannot.

Paul Shoemaker

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