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Satirino records · Bach - Partitas

J. S. Bach - 6 Partitas BWV 825 - 830

Kenneth Weiss   harpsichord

Satirino records SR011 - 2 CDs - released on 1st October 1999

Recorded at
Église Evangélique Allemande, rue Blanche, Paris, 21-24/6/1999
Sound engineers
Nicolas Bartholomée & Nicolas de Beco
Nicolas de Beco
Claire Luhan & Charlotte Derville, Digipro, Paris
le monde est petit
Chris Rainier / Corbis

The Harpsichord on this recording is from the Anthony Sidey workshop, based on a mid-18th-century German instrument from the Gottfried Silbermann workshop. It was built in Paris in 1995 by Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal and was tuned for the present recording by Anthony Sidey.

Press Reviews

'This young American harpsichordist... tackling one of the pinnacles of keyboard music, has produced a masterpiece... His calm, composed and subtle approach to these dance suites is magnificently noble.'
Renaud Machart, Le Monde

‘This Bach stretches, overflows, dares unexpected slow tempi and explores new territory... the first Partitas are exceptionally poetic. The fourth explodes in multi-coloured fireworks display.... The sixth reaches zeniths of inspiration.'
Julian Sykes, Le Temps - Genève

Liner Note

When Bach arrived in Leipzig at the age of 38 with the experience of twenty years of professional activity behind him, he was already author of an impressive catalogue of work, not one note of which had yet been published: a great part of his chamber music, concertos, music for the harpsichord and the organ, forty or so cantatas… Among connoisseurs he had an enormous reputation, as composer, virtuoso, and expert. For many years pupils had come from all the Princedoms and Dukedoms then composing central Europe to ask his advice. But this was a reputation among cognoscenti, a reputation that had spread by word of mouth, unsupported by publication. Indeed, as the age of the Baroque drew to its close, the purchase and engraving of printing blocks were still expensive and time consuming, and the number of scores that could be sold would hardly have justified the expense. And why bother, in any case, to publish functional scores for liturgies or Court amusements, when only a few professionals could make use of them? From the publisher's viewpoint, only music for a wider public could be of interest, that is to say music written for music lovers who played at home, Hausmusik, such as Telemann and Handel had long been writing.

As he entered his forties, it became urgent for Bach to write for publication, and all the more so as in Leipzig he had yet to establish his reputation. He had been chosen director of the town's music faute de mieux, and had disposed himself to accept the inglorious tasks incumbent upon the role of cantor, parallel to his activities for the city of Leipzig. And Leipzig was above all the intellectual and capital of the duchy of Anhalt-Coethen, while the new musical director had no university studies to provide academic legitimacy, and would be made to feel his presumption.
So he launched into the project of publishing a first collection of works, for the harpsichord of course, the instrument of choice for distinguished amateurs likely to purchase the scores. His daily round was exhausting: why not choose some of the pieces he had already composed, pieces that had been polished over the years and which were still in manuscript form? It is true that the Inventions and the Symphonies, not to mention the atypical Well-tempered Clavier, all have the air of teaching collections. But then why not bring out the two series of suites, the six French Suites and six English Suites, which were ready to hand? No: the composer wanted to provide a brilliant proof of his mastery and his talent, with works that were new, original and powerful. So Bach produced six entirely new keyboard suites, which he baptised "Partitas" - his Opus I.

The first Partita appeared in the autumn of 1726, announced in the press: "Herr Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister to His Highness the Duke of Anhalt-Coethen and director of music of Leipzig, has the intention of publishing a suite of works for the keyboard; he has already written the initial Partita and has the intention of continuing step by step until the work is finished." The other Partitas, it continued, were to follow slowly, one a year; new announcements would signal their publication, with the names of the stockists through whom they could be obtained, in Dresden, Halle, Lüneburg, Wolfenbüttel, Nuremberg and Augsburg.

By 1731 the collection was finished. It was published with a handsome title page: "Clavier Übung, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Gigues, Minuets and other gallantries; composed for the recreation of amateurs by Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister to the Prince of Saxe-Weissenfels and musical director of Leipzig. Opus I. Edited by the Author. 1731". The term Clavier-Übung, already in use at that period, in particular by Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor at Leipzig, is not easy to translate. Its literal meaning is "Exercises for the keyboard instrument", just as Scarlatti was to talk some years later of "Essercizi per gravicembalo"; but it could also be rendered here by "Keyboard practice" or even "Book of the harpsichord".

Bach obviously had no intention of stopping there, and was to continue to publish his compilations, principally for the keyboard. First there were the two other volumes added to the Clavier-Übung: the second part, in 1735, with the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, followed in 1739 by the third part, offering a marvellously developed suite of pieces for the organ.. In 1741 or 1742 a new book appeared, a new Clavier-Übung containing a series of developments subsequently known as the Goldberg Variations. During the last years of his life Bach was also to publish the Musical Offering, Canonic Variations for Organ and The Art of the Fugue, whose definitive version was interrupted by the composer's demise. One may reasonably suppose that other collections, already completed or in progress, were to have followed, for example a new collection of works for organ, with the chorals known as the "Leipzig Autograph".

It is evident that we are here no longer faced with the instruction of one's neighbour, as in the preceding collections; these are true entertainments for amateurs. Particularly gifted amateurs it is true, judging by the difficulty of the pieces. A young lady, betrothed to the humanist Gottsched, wrote in 1732: "The Bach keyboard pieces that you sent me (…) are as beautiful as they are difficult. When I have played them ten times, I still feel as if I am taking my first steps". And Mattheson, the extremely demanding theoretician of Hamburg, affirmed that "these works require study, and whoever has the audacity to wish play them correctly the first time acts with great temerity, and by his feats will subject his audience to a grim test, even if he is a great master of the keyboard."

Even distributed in a limited number of copies, the work contributed greatly to Bach's notoriety, both as composer and as teacher. His first biographer, Forkel describes these pieces as "inimitable models of their kind", and wrote, relying on the accounts of Bach's sons in 1802, that "this publication caused a great stir in the musical world: until that time one had rarely seen or heard such excellent compositions for the harpsichord. The man who familiarised himself with a few of these pieces could, thanks to them, make his fortune in the world: in our own time, even a young artist can learn from them, so brilliant are they, so pleasant, expressive, and ever-new."

The six pieces follow a very specific order: a degree above, two degrees below, three degrees above, etc. So we find the tonalities of B flat major to begin with, followed by C minor, A minor, D major, G major and E minor, three major and three minor keys. A seventh piece, in F major, was required to complete the cycle of the seven notes in the diatonic scale, and this closure was provided in the second volume, with the Italian Concerto.

The author announces that the partitas consist of "Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Gigues, Minuets and other gallantries". If each Partita had in fact followed the general plan of the instrumental suite, it would have changed everything. For Bach never repeats himself, and while he adheres to a formal framework, it is only to undermine it from within. Beneath the apparent order reigns the greatest diversity of styles, in the "meeting of tastes" dear to the Europe of this period. A diversity that is also expressive, affective and poetic throughout this procession of miniatures, which should be heard as aspects or landscapes of the soul.


Track list

CD 1 : 67’33

Partita N°1 BWV 825 - B flat major
1 - Praeludium
2 - Allemande 
3 - Corrente
4 - Sarabande
5 - Menuet

6 - Menuet
7 - Gigue

Partita N°2 BWV 826 - c minor
8 - Sinfonia
9 - Allemande
10 - Courante
11 - Sarabande
12 - Rondeaux
13 - Capriccio

Partita N°3 BWV 827 - a minor

14 - Fantasia

15 - Allemande
16 - Corrente

17 - Sarabande
18 - Burlesca
19 - Scherzo
20 - Gigue

CD 2 : 69’47

Partita N°4 BWV 828 - D major

1 - Ouverture

2 - Allemande
3 - Courante
4 - Aria
5 - Sarabande

6 - Menuet
7 - Gigue

Partita N°5 BWV 829 - G major
8 - Praeambulum
9 - Allemande
10 - Corrente
11 - Sarabande
12 - Tempo di minuetta

13 - Passepied
14 - Gigue

Partita N°6 BWV 830 - e minor
15 - Toccata

16 - Allemanda
17 - Corrente
18 - Air
19 - Sarabande
20 - Tempo di Gavotta

21 - Gigue