LABOR RECORDS ANNOUNCES THE RELEASE OF
THE COMPLETE KEYBOARD WORKS OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH FEATURING LEGENDARY BRAZILIAN PIANIST JOAO CARLOS MARTINS
THE HISTORIC COLLECTION OF 19 CD`s NOW BEING MADE AVAILABLE, FOR THE FIRST TIME, TO AUDIENCES AROUND THE WORLD
1-2. The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I)
3-4. The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book II)
5-6. The Six Partitas
7. The Goldberg Variations
8. The Two- and Three Part Inventions
9. Italian Concerto; Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach; 18 Preludes
10. Concertos for Keyboard and Strings Nos. 1, 3 and 5.
11-12. The French Suites; Overture in the French Style
13. The English Suites Nos. 1-3; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue
14. The English Suites Nos. 4 & 5; Toccata No. 2 in C minor;
Fantasia in C minor
15. Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major; Concertos for
Keyboard and Strings Nos. 2 and 4
16. Toccatas; English Suite No. 6 in D minor
17. Concertos for Keyboard and Strings Nos. 6 and 7 in D minor;
Concertos for 2 Keyboards and Strings in C minor and C major
18. Toccatas; Overture in F; 4 Duetti; Adagio in G major;
Aria Variata in A minor; Capriccio in Bb major
19. Fantasias, Preludes, Fugues and Fughettas
The exciting news in the world of music is that Pianist' monumental undertaking of committing all that Johann Sebastian Bach ever wrote for the keyboard has just been released, for the first time, as one digital Collection comprising 19 CDs, 338 works, and 191/2 hours of music.
This lifetime project, over 20 years in the making and the most comprehensive of its kind in the history of recorded music realized by one pianist, is now available, exclusively, from The Orchard, the leading distributor for digital content.
In today’s pianistic world, one of the most controversial, iconoclastic and startling virtuoso pianist is Brazil’s Joâo Carlos Martins. Like his gigantic country Martins’ playing displays mighty contrasts and eruptions, glorious landscapes, and vast resources.
It seems that the piano playing of Martins reflects the temperamental quirkiness and grandeur of his nation. From his earliest years, Joâo Carlos Martins was steeped in the universality of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, and this artist has spent his tragically romantic experience imbibing Bach with a passion that defies fatigue. Indeed, it is fair to say that Martins has been enraptured, intoxicated and hypnotized by the immortal Leipzig Cantor.
“His technique sends fireworks in all directions…He does everything with extraordinary élan.” – New York Times
“The most exciting player of Bach on the modern piano to emerge since Glenn Gould.” – Boston Globe
“Piano playing of uncommon beauty. He is a marvel of rhythmic electricity, a font of musicianship and a man born to do great things with the piano.” – Washington Post
Take my word for it: You have never heard Bach played like this, and it may infuriate you, it may entrance you, but it will not leave you unmoved. Martins is often compared to Glenn Gould, probably because both play Bach on a modern piano (and often at lightning-fast tempo), and because both reconsider Bach in a highly personal way. But Gould was really an archetypical modernist, while Martins’s emotionally volatile style might just as well be compared to Horowitz or even Stokowski. This Bach is virtually a transcription à la Martins–about as far from historically-correct performance as you can get.
Martins's interpretation cannot be pegged as merely Romantic, for it seems to draw on every era, evoking Chopin and Rachmaninoff as often as Scarlatti or Jazz. His tempos are infinitely malleable; he creeps where you would expect him to race and flies where you would want him to crawl. He is nearly inaudible or unbearably loud. He adds octaves in the bass and pedals heavily. And he has one of the most varied touches I’ve ever heard, ranging from disembodied ethereality to earthy vulgarity. After listening to Martins’s Bach, you may well discover that the composer has been reborn afresh–and in ways you could never have imagined.
– K. Robert Schwarz, Classic CD
João Carlos Martins does not exactly enjoy the kind of name recognition that he surely deserves; placed alongside Glenn Gould as one of the foremost Bach interpreters of our time, any conversation regarding recordings of Bach's prodigious keyboard output would be seriously misinformed without consideration of Martins' work. Glenn Gould's big 1955 splash into the media spotlight with his best-selling and unforgettable Goldberg Variations, not to mention his often-eccentric and quirky persona, indelibly engraved his image into the public's consciousness; the marketing savvy and production dollars that Columbia Records brought to the table probably didn't hurt things either. The timing and public acceptance of Gould's Goldberg Variations is really remarkable, as well - who would ever have thought that a relatively arcane group of variations would become the basis for the best-selling classical album of all time? Bach purists scoffed at the idea of any of Bach's works played on anything but the harpsichord, and who could have guessed that the record-buying public would embrace a modernist view of Bach held by seemingly so few musicians. Wanda Landowska, the great harpsichordist, quoted in reference to Bach played on the piano said, "You play Bach your way, and I'll play him his way!"
Martins' journey was never an easy one; he didn't receive the same level of intense media attention given Glenn Gould, and his path toward greatness was repeatedly sidetracked early on in his career. He sustained nearly career-ending injuries while playing soccer (another of his passions), which came close to forcing his early retirement. Countless hours of practice and rehabilitation brought him back to the concert hall, only to suffer serious self-doubt regarding his ability to perform following harsh attacks from the critics. He virtually left the music scene to pursue other interests, hardly touching a piano for years. He never lost his love for the music, however, and returned to the studio with renewed zeal and the desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of recording all of Bach's keyboard works. After many years of recording and with his goal within sight, he was mugged and brutally beaten outside of a studio in Sofia, Bulgaria; he suffered brain injuries so severe that he had to virtually retrain his brain to make his fingers work properly. Finally in 1998 (and after 20 years of work) he completed the set. These recordings on the small, New York-based Labor Records label have become legendary among those in the know, and are collected here as a digital set for the first time. They represent a singular body of work has stood the test of time, and should secure João Carlos Martins' place among the elite company of 20th century Bach interpreters.
Upon hearing Martins for the first time, most either loved him or hated him - there's a great anecdote from David Dubal's book "Conversations with Martins" that relates a story about a Juilliard class that was played some of Martins' Bach. Just as the music started, one of the class immediately rose and asked to be excused from the session, rather than have to further endure such music!
The obvious temptation here is for direct comparisons between Martins' recordings and those of his great contemporary, Glenn Gould, although the Gould recordings will sometimes be the reference version. Other pianists (Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt and Maria João Pires, to name a few) offer compelling versions of some of the works presented here, as well, and provide a good basis of comparison for a thorough examination of Martins' art.
The first two volumes of the set (four CDs) consist of the 48 preludes and fugues that make up the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II. These works are integral to Martins' career and served as the program for both his Brazilian and American debuts, and provoked such a positive response following the concert here that he was immediately asked to record them for the Connoisseur Society label (still in print). One of the highlights of Dubal's book is a piece by piece dissection/discussion of all 48 preludes and fugues and provides much insight into Martins' approach to the works. The Well-Tempered Clavier gives us the first taste of the source of much of the controversy Martins generated early on; namely, the rapid-fire tempi of the playing (along with his extensive use of the pedal) seen throughout the set. In the opening Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, the prelude is played pianissimo, so quietly that I raised the volume to what I thought was close to a normal level; suddenly, the fugue comes storming in at a near-fortissimo - this is par for the course throughout the set. Martins' deeply romantic readings, however, breathe new life into all pieces in the set, which are typically given overly polite and much more baroque performances.
The third volume (2 CDs) collects the six Partitas. Once again, the tempi seem rather quick, though not excessively so. I reached for a DG disc (447 894-2) that I use as a reference for recorded piano sound featuring the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires playing Bach's Partita No. 1; this disc was given rather low marks from Gramophone, entirely based on the rapid tempi throughout. I've always enjoyed Pires' Bach, and really have been somewhat disappointed over the last few years that the reclusive pianist has not chosen to record more. Martins' and Pires' Bach mirror each other remarkably, and I honestly had to keep close check on which disc was playing when to tell them apart! Although these pieces are generally regarded to require less virtuosity to perform than many of Bach's other works, if Martins' nimble renderings of the Partitas isn't virtuosity, I don't know what is!
Volume 4 gives us the Goldberg Variations, and I must admit an almost engraved preference to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording, despite the fact that the recorded sound has always been somewhat lacking. Fortunately, I have the recent Sony release State of Wonder, which collects both the 1955 and 1981 Gould recordings in splendid, updated sound; this allowed me to easily compare and contrast all three versions, starting with the Martins recording.
The opening Aria played, followed by the first Variation; within a minute's time, my 17-year old daughter had raced downstairs and exclaimed "Who is this, and why is he playing this variation so loud and fast?" I had to laugh - once again, Martins never fails to make an impression on the uninitiated. After the disc's completion, I then spent some time in A/B/C comparisons between Martins and the two Gould discs. The 1955 Gould disc clocks in much faster than his 1981 version; from all accounts, he blamed his swifter, earlier recordings on youthful impetuousness. Much of the blazing technique is still in evidence in the 1981 recording, however, even if the tempi are somewhat slower. Martins' falls somewhere in between here; along with the blinding speed he often exhibits, his playing has a definite fluidity and romanticism about it. There are moments - Variation 14, for example - one of those dizzying, hand-crossing numbers where I have to give Glenn Gould an edge in technique (If you can, get the DVD of the 1981 Gould Goldbergs - what a rare treat it is to see this played!). After repeated listenings to all three, however, I've begun to embrace Martins' version - there's a certain rightness to his playing, and a clarity in his interpretation that ranks alongside both Gould recordings.
Volume 5 consists of the Two and Three Part Inventions (and Sinfonias). Again, we here have another good opportunity for direct comparison with Glenn Gould, and as before, the two share many of the same attributes. A good case in point is the famous Two Part Invention No. 13 (possibly Bach's most recognizable effort), and Martins' recording is very fast indeed - but then play Gould's almost superhuman version - it almost seems impossible that fingers could move that fast! With repeat playings, and as with the Goldbergs, however, Martins brings a very lyrical quality to the pieces that make their appeal very compelling, to say the least.
The Anna Magdalena Notebook begins Volume 6, along with the 12 Little Preludes and 6 Little Preludes. Although these pieces are well within the range of beginners, Martins offers them beautifully precise readings. He then concludes by mastering the complexities of the Italian Concerto, and imparts a lyrical quality to the music that I just don't hear in the Gould version.
Volume 8 (two CDs) opens with a premiere recording of the Overture in the French Style, and then follows with the six French Suites. Of great interest here is the Overture, which receives its first recording on this disc; it differs in form from the French Suites in that, rather than a small collection of popular dances (popularized by the French, and hence, their name), it shares much more in common with the concerto grosso form. Contemplative slower movements alternate with Martins' characteristic rapid-fire precision playing, as evidenced in the Vivace. This pattern continues throughout the French Suites, and offers another chance for comparison with Maria João Pires; as before, it was a task to distinguish between the two discs, so similar are their playing styles.
Volumes 1 through 6 and Volume 8 were recorded at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and date anywhere from 1979 to 1984. The recorded sound (from all digital sources) throughout is generally quite good, and is much more full-bodied than many other piano recordings I've heard of a similar vintage. In the remaining discs, Volume 7 and Volumes 9 through 15, the recording venue changes to the Salle Bulgaria, in Sofia, Bulgaria; this change in venue offers a metamorphoses for the recorded sound as well - it moves from already very good to astonishingly so! The Sofia recordings just have a much more visceral quality, especially the piano, which has more weight in its sonority. These recordings also offer much more spatial information, with excellent dynamic range and no tape hiss to be found.
Volumes 7, 11 and 13 (3 CDs) collect the seven Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra, along with the two Concertos for Two Keyboards and Orchestra, and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The Sofia Soloists provide sympathetic accompaniment here, with the music taking on a truly intimate charm, quite unlike the "big band" treatment that these pieces are so often given when played on piano. A recent set on Sony featuring Murray Perahia along with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields of the seven Concertos offers a good comparison to Martins' performances. Perahia's playing has a delicacy in his touch that offers each note in great relief, but it's not lacking in lyricism, and the orchestra is reasonably restrained. In the Martins version, the orchestral accompaniment is nothing short of superb; the strings are not nearly so massed - you can almost identify the individual players. Martins' playing flows much more lyrically - the music has so much more of the chamber quality so appropriate to it here.
Standouts on these volumes are the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the two Concertos for Two Keyboards and Orchestra. The Brandenburg is usually played with harpsichord, and the massed instruments usually overshadow the work of the keyboard player. Not so, here; Martins' playing in the lengthy Cadenza that ends the first movement is absolutely breathtaking! In the Concertos for Two Keyboards, we get the added treat of hearing Martins' older brother, José Eduardo Martins, as the second pianist; in the second movement of the C major Concerto, they play essentially as an unaccompanied duo spectacularly - talent obviously runs deep in this family!
Volumes 9, 10 and 12 collect the six English Suites, most of the Toccatas, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and the Fantasia in C minor. Volumes 14 and 15 offer the two remaining Toccatas, the Overture in F major, the Aria Variata in A minor, the Adagio in G major, 4 Duetti, a Cappricio, more Fantasias, Preludes, Fugues and Fughettas. The major works here are the English Suites and the Toccatas; the English Suites have been recorded recently by Murray Perahia on Sony, and the Toccatas by Angela Hewitt on Hyperion. Again, while each offers exceptionally well played and valid renditions (each also offers splendid recorded sound), the playing is a tad too much in the traditional vein; the individualism that Martins brings to the keyboard is refreshing.
The set sells for under $160.00, an incredible bargain considering the scope and comprehensive nature of tis set. It should not be missed. Very highly recommended!
- Tom Gibbs, Audiophile Audition
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