J. S. Bach, Toccatas


Katharine Durran, piano

Duration: 1.0519

Metier Records 

MSV CD2001

When I received this CD, I must admit I'd never heard of Katharine Durran, and the music too, the Toccatas of Bach, were only vaguely known to me. They are not often heard today, which is a pity for the breadth and freedom of Bach's musical thought is inspirational, as is the sheer delight of the virtuosic, improvisatory character of these beautiful pieces. They are entertaining without being superficial, and free without being pointless and shambolic; in the Toccatas, Bach allows his imagination to roam free while at the same time his intellect retains full structural control: there is no hint, at least to my ears, of any disunity. In a recent television interview, Alfred Brendel has defined the masterpiece as a piece "which combines the incombineable", and while I have one or two reservations about that idea, I can certainly see what he means, and by that definition the Toccatas are indeed masterpieces in their own right.
Performing them presents many problems. The juxtaposition of ideas sometimes diametrically opposed within a single piece requires very sharp musical reflexes, and the emotional range of the pieces is enormous. They strike the listener as being composed of a series of musical sections, or movements, which oscillate between free passages - often pathetic - and stricter contrapuntal or fugal sections, contrasts which require careful handling.
Katharine Durran belongs to a modern tradition of piano playing in which virtuosity and emotional involvement are combined with careful attention to musical form and style. Her approach is not overtly retrospective, but she manages to combine a sense of historical awareness and clarity with real musicality and panache, leaving one with a feeling that they are being performed for the present. Her sound is aesthetically pleasing - a bit warm compared to Angela Hewitt's for example, although the contrast may be exaggerated by the warmth of the recorded sound (Hewitt's, and indeed many other modern piano recordings, are generally thinner and brighter). She gives the impression throughout of having absorbed the music completely, and her obvious affinity for the works and her intellectual mastery of their structure produce superb performances, characterised by clarity, style, and responsiveness. Her unforced, natural artistry and dynamic pianism place this performance in the first rank, and listening enjoyment is further enhanced by clever programming. At first I wondered why she hadn't used the two major pieces to split up the five in minor keys, but that was before I'd played the CD, and it all made perfect sense when I heard it. The CD opens with the brooding D minor piece, and at the end the wonderful D major toccata refreshes our spirits before the pianist leaves in a blaze of glory in a stunning final section of great vivacity.
I was struck with this recording, unlike some other modern Bach performances, by how atmospheric the music could be. There is no trace of sentimentality or excessive use of colour, and yet the atmosphere evoked by, for example, the opening section of the G minor piece is standard setting. Subtle shading is used throughout to enhance the musical feel of the piece; moreover, one gets the feeling that the artist is conveying the musical delight and - for the want of a better term - the musical potential energy of the work. Control and sage tempi characterise her performance of the touching F sharp minor Toccata; the clarity and careful shaping of the fugal section of this piece is particularly impressive, but again, erudition and technique are deployed in a highly enjoyable manner. The more emotionally negative C minor is given a sympathetic and wonderfully stylish performance, the slow opening section sounding tearful and genuine, while the bitter-sweet characteristics of the final polyphonic section are communicated beautifully. The two major pieces are a delight; they are immediately likable, and Katharine Durran's performance of the final piece on the disc, the D major, in nothing short of inspirational. Its jubilant and infectious opening section, full of witty ornamentation and chord changes, leads on to a characteristically introspective inner section, and finally to a vivacious final 'hunting' movement, in which some stunning piano playing is on display. I suppose it's a bit superficial compared to the others, but nonetheless hugely enjoyable!
All in all, this is a wonderful disc, introducing a Bach pianist of rare insight and musicality. A recording of the Goldberg variations is planned, and if you've heard this, you'll almost certainly be looking forward to hearing that. The recording, made at St. George's, Bristol, is superbly engineered to audiophile standards.

The Editor

5 February 2001