J.S. Bach: The Six Partitas

Joseph Fleetwood


I struggle to find something unique to say about the music of J.S. Bach, an extremely difficult task for a composer who died in 1750—almost 300 years ago. It is clear, however, that his music has remained relevant to this day. Like many, the first time I remember hearing the music of Bach was with the wonderfully eclectic recordings of Glenn Gould. Since then, I have had the pleasure of hearing many recordings of Bach’s music, and I have enjoyed playing some of them myself. Edwin Fischer, a legendary figure from the piano’s golden age, would tell a pupil, “When in trouble, play Bach.” Many pianists would seem to agree with Fischer, as there is no shortage of exquisite recordings of Bach’s music.

Joseph Fleetwood, a pianist with a refined touch and relaxed manner, has found his career gaining momentum in recent years. He has been awarded the Narramore Fellowship from the University of Alabama, where he pursues his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Piano Performance. But his academic studies haven’t kept him from releasing this wonderful set of performances of Bach’s six partitas for keyboard. J.S. Bach: The Six Partitas shows Fleetwood in fine form as he works through these keyboard suites. It appears that many would share the same opinion as me—the album, released in 2020 by Sheva Collection, has now sold over 720,000 copies.

This collection groups the partitas by key. The first disc contains the three major key suites, and the second is dedicated to the minor key pieces. The playing is pristine, with a full, singing tone that Fleetwood coaxes from the Yamaha CFX concert grand featured on the recording. The tempo choices for all the partitas are deliberate and thoughtful. Attention is paid to the details—the differing voices and how they all blend on the piano. This is a refreshing change of pace from what feels like the increasingly hectic interpretations of others, as if the pianists are trying to win a race and see who can get to the finish line. While nothing is wrong with faster interpretations, many of which can be exhilarating, the measured choices and broader tempi allow the listener to keep up and enjoy the many delightful details in this complex music. When taking a slower approach, there is always the risk of the pace dragging, leaving the listener bored and waiting for the whole affair to end. But that is not the case here, and Fleetwood’s temporal judgment maximizes the sense of cohesion in each partita, elevating them above a mere collection of dance movements.

The result is an enjoyable experience. While listening, I found my eyes closed and my senses soaring with all the twists and turns found in the working parts of these pieces. A standout moment in the Ouvertüre of Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828, felt the gentle singing of the highest voice bouncing gracefully, dancing along—a captivating performance. This set is full of such moments.

The music is made to sound easy throughout—Bach himself said that he had composed them for music lovers, and at his own expense, published them together as his Opus 1. For those new to listening to Baroque music, these pieces were not written for the piano. Like most Baroque music, the label keyboard can go for several instruments: in addition to the piano, the harpsichord, organ, and clavichord. These latter instruments are more likely what this music was meant for rather than the piano. One would not be able to tell this by Fleetwood’s performances, though, with each piece sounding natural on our more modern and robust concert grand.

J.S. Bach: The Six Partitas stands out from the pack with Joseph Fleetwood’s stellar playing, attention to detail, and gorgeous tone on showcase. If one has not listened to Bach’s keyboard works, this album is the perfect board for diving into the deep end. I invite anyone to sit back, relax with a drink of choice (whisky on the rocks for myself) and let the music of these suites wash over them.

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