Notes and Editorial Reviews
Rafael Puyana (hpd)
SANCTUS 027-029 (3 CDs: 156:54)
I couldn’t help but compare the presentation and production of this release to the six-disc Karl Richter commemorative collection on Profil, which I just finished reviewing, a set that contained nothing but a slim seven-page booklet with nothing but a track listing—no notes on the music and no bio on the featured artist. In contrast, if you’re going to memorialize an artist with a tribute album,
this Sanctus release of Bach’s Six Keyboard Partitas, performed by recently deceased (March 2013) harpsichordist Rafael Puyana, is the way to do it.
No expense was spared in putting out this sumptuously appointed album. Conforming to the height dimensions of a standard CD—so that it will fit on your shelf—the three discs are housed within a hardcover book, containing 153 pages of notes in three languages and beautiful color photos and reproductions of art works, all printed on thick, high-quality, glossy stock, sewn in with silk bindings. It must cost a small fortune to produce such a thing in any significant numbers; yet Sanctus is selling this work of art in itself for the amazing price of $40.98 on its web site, rafaelpuyana.sanctusrecordings.com. That would be mid-price—$13.66 per disc—for just your average, every-day, three-CD set. How the company, which spells its name SanCtuS, does it, I’m not sure, but I suspect that this Brazil-based label—whose mission statement places a special focus on Latin composers and Brazilian and South American musicians—may receive some funding support from the government, though I have no evidence to support that claim.
Rafael Antonio Lazaro Puyana Michelsen was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1931. At age 16 he entered the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, later enrolling at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. His passion for early music and the harpsichord led him to the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, with whom he studied during the last seven years of her life, while during summer months he traveled to France to study harmony and composition with Nadia Boulanger, in Fontainebleau and Paris.
Puyana’s career as a harpsichordist began in 1957 with recitals at the Hotchkiss School, the Jordan Hall in Boston, and Town Hall, in New York City. He was immediately ranked as one of the most striking musical personalities of his generation. He gave numerous performances across several continents, and played with Andrès Segovia, Leopold Stokowski, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, John Williams, Maxence Larrieu, and James Galway, to name only a few of the celebrated musicians with whom he collaborated. He was an inspiring teacher who gave master classes for many years at summer schools in Santiago de Compostela, Prades, and Dartington. Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, and Genoveva Galvez were among students who attended these classes.
Puyana’s repertoire was not limited to Baroque music, in which he established himself as a recognized authority. It extended to the repertoire of the 18th-century fortepiano and to important compositions for the harpsichord in the 20th century, including by Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto as well as Poulenc’s
I doubt that Rafael Puyana is numbered (or ever was) among today’s elite company of keyboardists, most of whom have done extensive scholarly research into the instruments and practices of the period. I would include in that inner circle Richard Egarr, Ton Koopman, Benjamin Alard, Gustav Leonhardt, and Trevor Pinnock, each having given us his own excellent account of Bach’s Partitas.
Questions of authenticity are sure to arise regarding Puyana’s tempos, which tend towards the slow side, grand cadential ritards, articulation (introducing little
between phrases), and choice of registrations. These are not what you would call the latest historically informed performances. Yet Puyana’s winning way with the partitas can’t be denied. Playing on a magnificent 1740 three-manual harpsichord by Hieronymus Albrecht Haas (1689–1752), Puyana plays with a certain joyful abandon that puts the
onest into Bach. There’s real joy, as well as sincere earnestness in Puyana’s performances, and the recordings, among the artist’s last, made circa 1985 in his Paris residence, are fresh-sounding and alive.
Sources I’ve checked seem to indicate that these recordings have not been previously released. Was it Puyana’s wish that they not be? I don’t know. Perhaps he felt they didn’t stand up to his earlier work? Personally, I think it’s a shame that they’ve been kept under wraps for almost 30 years, because the performances are quite wonderful, combining the resolute, serious musicianship of Landowska, Puyana’s one-time teacher who greatly influenced him, with a freer, more spirited, if not yet thoroughly period-appropriate, approach.
Even if you are completely satisfied with one or more versions of the partitas you already have, I strongly recommend Puyana to you for a most happy listening experience. Besides, the gorgeous book itself is worth the price.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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