I have only owned one recording by David Fray; that was his CD of Bach keyboard concertos. The videos online showed us more of this interesting musician, and of course, it inspired others to compare him to the likes of Glenn Gould. My guess is that personally he’s far less eccentric, and his playing for sure, is more “musical” than Gould’s. In the liner notes to this new recording of two Bach partitas and a toccata, he mentions the comparison to Gould, and his dislike for his interpretations.
I didn’t get too deeply into the earlier review, but had good things to say. I did hear Fray make noises in his concerto recording.
This recording is about the artist, and you might hear him articulating from his vocal cords (I did, in the first mvt. of BWV 1052)…
Well, I now see why the comparisons to Gould are there. The conducting at the keyboard with a free hand, and the gutteral noises will do it. Fray is not vocalizing à la Gould in this new recording, but there is ample noise making from feet and the throat. I have mixed feelings about it, for sure.
For one, the performer making noises shows us that there’s a real person behind the music. I have talked about hearing Helene Schmitt breathe heavy in her violin playing. This is more overt, perhaps, but it’s something you’d likely accept in a live performance.
I do not think it belongs on a record.
The record opens with Bach’s Partita #2. Where some might roll the big chords, Fray plays the notes all at the same time. What’s immediately revealed is a nicely captured piano in an open, delicious space. As far as piano recordings go, this one is quite nice.
After the opening in the first movement, Fray does well to give equal articulation to each note. But instead of sounding overly mechanical, he clearly is applying nice phrasing to the melody. The whole affair is almost slightly meditative in sections, up to a dramatic point where he does, finally roll his chord. The fugetta comes next, nice and fast, exciting, even. Same clean articulation. Dynamic contrasts. Then it creeps in. The sounds from his throat. Is that singing? What is that? It’s low. It’s no Keith Jarrett whine or yelling. But of course Jarrett never makes noises in his Bach.
Fast music can be an athletic experience for the performer, and Fray seems to remind us of that.
The Allemande is nicely done. But you’ll have a few piano sounds to go with your dance. I’m nitpicking a bit, here, but how do these things get past the editors?
The Courante is aptly faster and louder. Elegant, even. David, though, keep your mouth closed.
The last two movements are among my favorites, a Rondeau and Capriccio. Both are intense little pieces, and this is where Fray shines. He’s got the technical chops, and is great at phrasing. The dynamic contrasts aren’t always expected, but they do well to highlight the music in light and shadow in interesting ways. The final Capriccio is the more athletic number, and of course, the guttural noises come along for the ride.
I compared his recording of the second partita with another pianist, Anne-Marie McDermott. She opts for even faster tempi. I found her recording to be most satisfying. She too employs a very good consistency in articulation, but even perhaps at an even more virtuosic level than Fray. The tempo difference between her Rondeau and Capriccio is less different. She does less with dynamic contrasts. Her piano sound is closer and well-miked. Switch to Fray, and a beautiful warm glow envelopes his instrument.
It’s hard to say that one pianist beats the other; both are to be admired. I like McDermott’s rolled chords better. And if the guttural sounds by Fray bother you, the only sounds she makes are through the keys on the piano.
Bach’s Toccatas are multi-section works. On Fray’s recording, he splits the two Partitas with this one in C minor.
In the second section, Fray slows down to such a pace that I see light filtering in the church through stained glass. It’s done in such as way, with such even articulation, that it reminds me of a religious meditation.
By way of contrast, I think Angela Hewitt on Hyperion has a stronger opening to BWV 911. She contributes more “shape” to the lines than Fray; but her faster tempo in the second section misses the golden glow of light that Fray recreates in a church space. Some will find Fray’s tempo too slow; Hewitt’s choice in tempo and style is more pragmatic, perhaps, as it certainly still maintains my interest and she keeps a sense of direction of where it’s all going in tact.
Gould comes on full-bore, hacking away at the instrument, and singing along, to boot. Gould isn’t exactly “musical” in his reading, but he does well to point-out the architectural features of the music. In the second section he goes slower than Fray; the slow, unfolding hymn-like passage I know, as a performer, can feel good as such a glacial pace. But musically, Fray betters Gould’s reading in painting a picture with his approach.
The fugal section by Fray and his articulation of the theme do well to highlight his acoustical space. It would work anywhere, but the effect seems amplified. But why does he insist in tapping his foot?
Comparisons to Hewitt and Gould reconfirm that he’s got a nice instrument and recorded the lot in a very natural, sympathetic acoustic.
The opening of the sixth Partita is marked Toccata, as well. This opener can really be dynamic and dramatic. Fray holds back. Andreas Staier captures the spirit, I think, far more deliciously, in his account on harpsichord (deustche harmonia mundi). By the nature of the word, I’d expect some Italian fireworks. If it’s any consolation, Gould seems to miss the style, too, in his reading of BWV 830.
Fray’s reading of the Allemande is elegant. Maybe even tame. His Corrente turns on the fire, and his tapping toe. His reading of the Air is nice, showing off again his technical chops at clear, clean articulation in the right hand. The Sarabande is everyone’s festival of the slow. Staier with repeats clocks in at 6:40; Fray at 7:32; Gould without repeats, 3:40. Again, I’m going to go with Staier on interpretation. The drama he pulls out of his historic instrument is an excellent lesson for both Gould and Fray.
The last two movements are a faster pair, a Gavotte and a Gigue. Fray takes the Gavotte at a nice pace, and is somewhat playful with it, which I think is appropriate. Gould, by comparison, whips it off like something you have to slog through just to get closer to the end of the entire Partita.
The final gigue is a contrapuntal exercise with Bach. The theme is modern, for sure, with its jumps and chromatic elements. Gould doesn’t make much serious out of it, but picks a tempo by which the art of counterpoint comes through clearly. Staier plays the dance quite straight, which has its merits, but I like Fray’s interpretation best.
He takes some 6:47 to read through the movement, but does so with enough caution not to overwhelm us; his dynamic contrasts support the music in pleasing ways. Ornaments come-off as natural sounding at his chosen tempo. The occasional foot tap reinforces the underlying tempo pushing all the notes forward.
I really wanted to like this new release by David Fray. His handsome good looks are on the cover to entice us, for sure, but what lives beneath the cover is less perfect. Some of his musical ideas are winners; others are not as strong as aesthetic solutions. His technical command of the instrument proves to us that’s he is a very capable musician.
There isn’t likely any one perfect interpretation of Bach. The same pianist can present the same work, concert after concert, in different ways, trying different interpretive solutions. I know that when Fray sets out to record these works again, perhaps 10, 15, or 20 years from now, I’ll be in line to check them out. Like performers before him, he’ll have the opportunity to try more ideas and more experience, perhaps, will prove to be even more exciting.
The pluses here include the sound of Fray’s instrument. It’s a really nice capture of a beautiful instrument under the command of a very able musician. In the faster movements, I feel, Fray shines the most, with articulation and phrasing that’s both exciting and supportive of Bach’s notes. Some of the music comes across slightly bland; this might work great in a live performance to build contrast. On record, and repeated listenings, it might fall flat. It’s in the slower, softer sections I think Fray has room to grow, through the exploration of more contrasts (perhaps fighting what the learnèd tradition of piano playing has taught him and his peers), ornamentation, and at times maybe, even playfulness.
The only blemish on the recording is the inability of the recording engineers to remove Fray’s noise making. With high resolution equipment or headphones you’ll notice it. In the car, I hardly do at all. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the recording and have put it in regular rotation here at home.
And here’s what you’ll notice in the video I’ve embedded above–Fray’s interpretive decisions–the ones I might consider somewhat bland–are totally supported through his facial and body language.