Into the Fray: A Pianist's Bach Adventure

Anatole Leikin on January 11, 2013
David Fray Bach
David Fray Bach

The young French pianist David Fray (b. 1981) received the Second Grand Prize at the Montreal International Music Competition in 2004 and was voted “Newcomer of the Year 2008” by the BBC Music Magazine. His recent CD, released by Virgin Classics, is devoted entirely to Bach’s keyboard music: Partita No. 2 in C Minor (BWV 826), Toccata in C Minor (BMW 911), and Partita No. 6 in E Minor (BWV 830).

It’s a courageous choice of repertoire — to play almost 30 minutes continuously and exclusively in C Minor (Partita No. 2 and the Toccata), and then to switch to yet another minor key for 36 more minutes (Partita No. 6 in E Minor). A monochromatic tedium may easily set in, and I can’t say that Fray has successfully avoided such an unwelcome outcome.

The first four movements of the C-minor Partita (Sinfonia, Allemande, Courante, and the Sarabande) drift by in a largely sedated manner, with just a little splash of vigor enlivening the last, faster section of the Sinfonia. In the dance movements, each of the two sections is dutifully repeated, and I don’t quite understand why — well, except that the repeat signs are marked in the score. As Fray goes through the repeated sections, he merely duplicates their first entries; he adds neither melodic embellishments (requisite in the Baroque era, and with good reason) nor new, expressive details. These exact repeats stiffen further the strangely dispassionate, detached character of this Partita. Only in the last two fast movements, Rondeau and Capriccio, does the pianist suddenly come to life, delivering, with relish, rapid polyphonic exchanges and jarring syncopations.

Listen To The Music

Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.com
Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.com
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Bach’s early keyboard toccatas are singularly impulsive and flamboyant works. Fray’s account of the C-minor Toccata, however, apart from a few introspective, touching moments, is fairly straightforward and unremarkable, especially in the colossal second fugue.

The last Partita lasts longer than the preceding two compositions on the disk, and not only because the work itself is expansive. To begin with, Fray presents the opening movement, Toccata, in an exceptionally slow tempo, à la Glenn Gould. But in Gould’s hands every bar is a discovery, a stunning display of unanticipated delights, whereas in Fray’s reading nothing surprising happens during the excruciating 9½ minutes of the Toccata. Predictable and uninvolved, it simply cruises along on autopilot.

Bach’s early keyboard toccatas are singularly impulsive and flamboyant works.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised when the repeat of the Allemande’s first section began: Here, Fray adds a few melodic embellishments. They are minimal, but oh, so refreshing! Unfortunately, this bold move is over and done with after the first bar. In the rest of the Allemande and, as a matter of fact, of the entire Partita, there are no more such intrepid attempts at melodic adornments during the repeats. I suppose one measure is better than none, but it’s still rather baffling: Why here, why now, and why not anywhere else? The Partita clocks in at 36 minutes, but, given the redundancy of exact repeats, the piece appears to be much more protracted.

To be sure, some captivating moments are heard in the E-minor Partita, such as the perky syncopations of the Courante and the tenderly poignant finesse of the Sarabande. I’ve got the impression that Fray becomes inspired when he faces challenging rhythmic and polyphonic complexities. Yet when the musical texture is ostensibly uncomplicated, with only one or two melodic lines at a time, Fray loses interest. This is a serious misconception, though. Even when Bach’s textures appear simple, they actually conceal exquisite contrapuntal riches, because every single melodic line is subtly subdivided into two or more hidden, thematic strains. Regrettably, Fray neglects most of them. Even when Bach’s textures appear simple, they actually conceal exquisite contrapuntal riches. … Regrettably, Fray neglects most of them.

The piano tone in the recording is quite attractive, both in forte and piano, though with one lamentable exception: The concluding Gigue in the E-minor Partita is a clattering, noisy, and unsympathetic affair. And just when you think it’s finally over, Fray repeats the second half of the Gigue. Identically, of course.

Frankly, when this CD came out, I expected to hear something interesting, perhaps even provocative, from this talented young artist. The disc does contain occasional lovely and deeply felt playing, but for the most part it is a disappointment.