Bach: Complete Partitas, BWV 825­830 Peter Sykes, Harpsichord
Centaur Records

Peter Sykes, longtime harpsichord recitalist and current chair of the historical performance department at Boston University, lends his years of scholarly study and the flexibility of his well­honed keyboard technique to an outstanding account of Johann Sebastian Bach's Six Partitas, BWV 825­830. That technique includes a fine feeling for Bach's rhythmic and contrapuntal complexities, which become more marked as we move through the set.
In fact, the most striking characteristic of the Partitas is their stunning diversity. As opposed to Bach's first efforts in the keyboard suite genre, the so­called "English" Suites of 1715­1720, there is no trace of cookie­cutter uniformity here. Bach worked on the six Partitas over a number of years, bringing them out for publication singly between 1726 and 1730, before collecting them as a set in 1731. As a result, his thoughts on the possibilities of the genre gradually evolved, and his writing became more chromatic, his rhythms more dotted and inclined to daring syncopations and rhythmic suspensions – all in the interest of greater persuasiveness and emotional expression.
The first two Partitas, BWV 825 and 826, are the most conventional, and generations of listeners have found them the most pleasing as well as the best­behaved in the way they deliver the goods. Even so, they aren't perfectly conventional: in the former, the concluding Giga, or Gigue (that is, jig) in duple time, involving a great deal of hand­crossing and generating lots of fun with its perpetual motion, got to be something of a "favorite hit" in Bach's lifetime. And the Courante in Partita 2 is more earnestly serious, even agitated, than we generally encounter in the swiftly flowing old French country dance. By the time we get to Partita 3, BWV 827, the diversity becomes more pronounced: the Sarabande, normally a slow dance with well­sculpted rhythms and pregnant pauses, acquires a march­like character that is not like a proper Sarabande at all. In place of the "galante" dances such as Minuet or Gavotte that would normally have followed the Sarabande and provided pleasant relief from its seriousness, we have two forms of musical jesting that we can infer from their Italian names, Burlesca and Scherzo (that is, a burlesque, i.e., exaggeration or caricature, and a joke). And the explosive energy of the relentlessly fugal Gigue rules it out as a dance form, even if your name is Gene Kelly!
If the Allemande in Partita 2 was agitated, the one in Partita 4 is uncharacteristically probing and spiritual; in fact, it contends for pride of place with the equally soulful and searching Sarabande, with which it shares a spiritual kinship, contrary to the way an Allemande usually behaved. Each of the Partitas opens with a different musical form; in 4, it is a stately, affirmative French Ouverture, while in the spirited Partita 5 it is a "Praeambulum," a high­speed improvisational piece with scales and arpeggios running in both directions.
The final Partita 6 is the boldest of all, and Sykes takes his time traversing its strange beauties and intricacies (41:55, to be exact). It begins with an improvisatory­ sounding Toccata with a three­voice fugue that reaches a point of almost unbearable intensity before it is resolved. In Sykes' interpretation, it is by far the longest (11:21) of all the opening movements, and the one most subject to intricate exploration that pays off handsomely. In terms of expressive power, it sails into uncharted waters far beyond the seven keyboard toccatas from earlier in Bach's career. The Corrente, with its jazzy syncopations over a walking bass, the far­ranging Sarabande that harkens back to the mood of the Toccata, and an overpowering Gigue that plays more like a caprice than a dance form, all require, and receive, the utmost in informed nimbleness from Sykes' artistry.