Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works for Solo Keyboard
English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807
Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826
English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)
Recorded St. George's, Brandon Hill, Bristol, U.K. (dates unknown)
NSS Music 4 [63:26]
Partitas - Argerich/DG (no. 2), Gould/Sony, Rangell/Dorian, Rubsam/Naxos,
English Suites - Argerich/DG (no. 2), Gould/Sony, Perahia/Sony, Pires/DG
(no. 3), Rubsam/Naxos
Except for one reservation, Anne-Marie McDermott's new Bach disc is a
total pleasure. My previous exposure to her artistry was a Prokofiev
disc on the Arabesque label, and I am now convinced that McDermott is
a major pianist with a wonderful career ahead of her. McDermott has
won numerous piano competitions and often performs as a soloist at the
major recital halls in the United States and Europe. She began playing
the piano at the age of five, and seven years later performed the
Mendelssohn Concerto in G minor at Carnegie Hall. Her primary studies
were at the Manhattan School of Music with Constance Keene and John
Browning. McDermott's "breakthrough" was her 1997 debut with the New
York Philharmonic, and the following years have seen her reputation rise
greatly to the point where she is now on the cusp of major stardom.
Although quite a simplification, we can get a fine idea of her Bach
artistry by looking at her playing of the composer's fast/powerful/exciting
movements on the disc and how she approaches the movements requiring
tenderness/nostalgia/poignancy. Concerning the exciting movements, there
are a host of them: English Suite No. 2 (Prelude, Courante, Bourree I &
II, Gigue), English Suite No. 3 (Prelude, Courante, Gigue), Partita No.
1 (Allemande, Courante, Gigue), and Partita No. 2 (Courante, Rondeaux,
Capriccio). For review purposes only, I've been playing these movements
one after another and marveling at McDermott's technical prowess with a
reserve of power second to none and galloping rhythms that are thrilling
to listen to. Essentially, she lets her "flying fingers" do all the
talking yet never allows the music's lyricism to elude her. If you crave
propulsion, pin-point articulation and break-neck speeds in these
movements, McDermott is an electrifying guide.
In Bach's more reflective music, McDermott is equally successful. She
fully conveys the nobility, sadness, despair, tenderness, and fragile
nature of the human condition while always maintaining a mesmerizing
rhythmic pulse and perfect articulation. Her readings are often of a
dream-like state, and I am unable to resist McDermott's call. Overall,
I find her to have all the gifts to become one of the great Bach pianists
of our time. Except....
It's now time to delve into the one reservation that I referred to in
the opening sentence of the review. It involves Bach's repeats in that
most of the movements are in AABB form. Performers have numerous ways
to approach these repeats: not play them at all, play them exactly as
in the initial recitation, or vary them based on changes in articulation,
tempo, pacing, dynamics, embellishments such as trills, etc. McDermott
observes all the repeats and varies them primarily through dynamic
contrast. This reviewer thinks highly of varying repeats but feels that
relatively subtle changes are more likely to enhance the music and that
dramatic changes can often call attention to themselves, sound contrived,
and damage one's immersion in the music.
Unfortunately, there is nothing subtle about McDermott's approach to
varying the repeats. When the theme is initially presented softly, its
repeat is usually in the forte range or stronger; the opposite sudden
differences happen when the theme is first presented as forte. These
are huge dynamic contrasts, and I find them jarring to the listening
experience. Put another way, McDermott has me entirely encased in Bach's
soundworld but then takes me back to Earth with a big thud. I should
report that a fellow Bach enthusiast whom I respect very much has no
problem at all with McDermott's contrasts, so it would be a good idea
for readers to sample the disc and reach their own conclusions about
what I consider the "sforzando" aspect of McDermott's performances.
I do want to emphasize that the strong dynamic contrasts do not ruin
the music but take it down a notch or two from a very exalted level.
Still, McDermott's Bach disc easily holds its own with the exceptional
recordings noted in the heading.
Almost forgot to offer a few words about the NSS music label. It
was founded in the Fall of 2005 by the well-known violinist Nadja
Salerno-Sonnenberg and already has a few recordings to its credit.
Salerno-Sonnenberg sees her new label as a haven for performing artists,
and I consider it quite a coup for her to have McDermott as one of the
label's artists. With all the new labels started by performers and
symphony orchestras, the retrenchment of the once-major classical labels
is not hard to abide.
Don's Conclusions: Anne-Marie McDermott gives us a blend of dazzling
virtuosity and deep emotional satisfaction that would be difficult to
match. Her soundstage is also impressive with a rich tone, deep bass,
and excellent separation of musical lines. Even with the reservation I
have noted concerning her repeats, I am proud to have this excellent
recording and intend to play it often in the future.
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