Honest and resolute


Judith Lambden

Move Records MCD 631

Lambden has already produced two Bach albums for Move: the English Suites in 2011 and the French Suites in 2013. Earlier, in 2009, she recorded the Partitas for Divine Art Recordings Now, after an interval of almost ten years, comes another collection which includes two major solo keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and the Italian Concerto. As a distinguishing feature to the CD, she begins with four of the seven toccatas for keyboard: BWV 911 in C minor, BWV 912 in D Major, BWV 913 in D minor and BWV 914 in E minor. These last-mentioned tracks are the more interesting components in this offering, works that don’t get much exposure, except for the BWV 912 which, in my experience, is one of the more manageable of the set.

I don’t know this artist at all, neither through live performance nor through broadcasts or recordings. This is unsurprising as well as unusual: Lambden spent many years in the UK and Europe, becoming a presence at the Victorian College of the Arts and other tertiary institutions on her return home, from which ambiences her name/presence should have struck my attention. But somehow it didn’t. Apart from a foray into Schubert’s last sonata, her recording activity has been confined to Bach where she is in distinguished company, to say the least.

The results are up and down, although not too much of the latter. Every so often, you are reminded of fallibility where a note is missed and so a line loses continuity, or the speed moves around rubato-like, in contrast to the metrical inflexibility that reigns these days as a reaction to the-alignments generated by Brahms, Busoni and even through Schoenberg’s chorale-prelude orchestrations In the toccatas, for instance, you won’t find majestic flourishes or moments of spontaneity, even if you think that you can see them in the music. Lambden’s approach is thoroughly workmanlike and her technical control is efficient; the results satisfy but they don’t show much spirit.

You won’t find any of the gallant Canadian humanism of Angela Hewitt, for example. Nor will you be confronted with the shibboleth-shattering re-toolings of Ton Koopman. Orthodoxy obtains all the way here and it’s somehow reassuring, even for my generation raised on Glenn Gould’s combination of purity and intransigence. The opening gestures post-dating Buxtehude in the C minor toccata are treated with metrical regularity and clarity; no sudden dashes, least of all in the strange layout of bar 11 leading to the Adagio, although Lambden inserts some individuality in that section’s flashy conclusion. It’s all gentle motion with entries pointed by the slightest of pauses.

You become aware of stiltedness in the following fugue, places where the expected dexterity doesn’t so much falter but is clearly tested, as in the arrival of the third voice. Still, the counterpoint is clear and the mid-flow cadenza enjoys some idiosyncratic negotiation. When the web becomes thick, e.g. from bar 100 to about bar 108, the texture is penetrable but Lambden’s articulation turns awkward, as later across bars 144-5 where Bach sticks to the middle of the keyboard. Still, the last adagio-to-presto is an unflustered flash of bar-busting insouciance.

Nothing disturbs the equanimity of the D Major work’s opening and its five rising scales and pendant power-accruing chords are buoyant if sober. The following gavotte-suggestive Allegro begins sturdily enough although, as matters move one, the pianist allows herself a fair amount of wriggle room, breaking the movement up into two- and four-bar stretches rather than aiming for smooth linkages. Well, it’s her choice, even if the effect is to change the action into something of a study.

At the bar 68 Adagio, we seem to have moved into the sound-world of Beethoven sonata slow movements, particularly at bar 71. The following andante-paced pages showed sympathetic expressiveness in a carefully applied Romantic manner which would have succeeded even better if the ornamentation had been more easily fused into the movement’s flow. Everything from the con discrezione direction on is open slather but here not wild enough to move out of Lambden’s pre-established context, although I would have preferred more of an expansiveness at bar 125 leading up to the gigue/fugue.

With this, Lamden’s approach proved light, which is more than acceptable, given the requisite mobility and the writing’s register. Something happened around bar 167 where a bar or two were omitted, according to my score; but with Bach, all things are possible. Though not quite a few notes that went missing, either through the pianist’s semi-staccato attack or simply because they didn’t sound – or possibly through the edition employed, although I can’t see the composer just letting his lines stop. My real problem came with the double-time acceleration that starts at bar 265 where Bach moves into demi-semiquaver land until the final two bars. To my mind, you have to stick to your last and play this section at double speed, not just offer a slight quickening; the splayed right-hand arpeggios are not hard to negotiate and should make for a crackling bravura explosion.

The smallest of the four toccatas on this CD, the E minor, is given a comparatively percussive treatment when you consider the approach taken in its predecessors. Each line is clearly delineated in the four voice allegro and again throughout the three-voice fugue at the conclusion. A few notes disappear, and in this situation you can tell that they simply don’t sound – because they do in a next-bar repetition of the same pattern. And again, half of the ornaments stick out like unhappy encrustations rather than as passing glances. Still, the emphatic attack works exceptionally well in the brittle two-page central adagio where abrupt outbursts contrast with predictable cadences and sequences.

And so to the longest in this set, that in D minor, which gets off to a fine, attention-grabbing start before the theatrics give way to a slow meditation at bar 15 from which point Lambden heaps on more incidentals than is comfortable, as well as revisiting her rubato approach in a slow meander up to bar 28 and a touch of presto. This toccata’s first fugue is a bit puzzling: at moments, a model of clear plain-speaking, then a bar that sounds clumsy in execution, followed by immediate recovery, an inexplicable acceleration at bar 100/101, later speeding up again at bar 111 where the repeated pattern’s insistence is mitigated by a flurry of temperament..

In the slow segment that follows, an instance of inconsistent touch comes with the last left-hand B flat in bar 127 which simply doesn’t sound and breaks a too-well-established pattern; it’s a small detail but hard to ignore. Actually, I find this one of the more yawn-inducing parts of the seven toccatas and Lambden unfortunately gives it full indulgence with a Romantic, tender approach that makes her breaking-out in the last 4 1/2 bars almost explosive in its impact. The final fugue finds the pianist in robust shape again with a steady pulse, a few moments of clumsiness, and an emphatic greeting of the subject whenever and wherever it emerges. But I liked the understated final two bars – a sort of withdrawal of drive in favour of an echo.

The two major works that Lambden presents will be familiar to most music-lovers and – even more than the toccatas – put the Australian pianist into a field populated by mighty names: Kempff, Brendel, Gilels, Arrau, Schiff, Landowska, Gould, Tureck, Nikolayeva, and the rest of the gang. For the Chromatic Fantasia, this artist carves an attractively fitful path, if it does slow down considerably at the end – a dying fall brought into play at about bar 74 – and the last chord’s top D is another non-sounder (or non-carrier). Apart from a few (and I mean about two) awkward-sounding bars where the inexorability slightly falters, Lambden outlines the fugue’s complex with admirable lucidity, bringing specific force to entries, reminding you of the plot when the composer’s love for leanly populated episodes takes over. Perhaps a bit too sturdy? Maybe, but you know exactly where the performance is leading in a performance of high conviction.

When it comes to the Italian Concerto, Lambden’s reading goes to prove the venerable saw: you can find something new in every performance of an old warhorse. I didn’t appreciate, even after 60+ years’ intimate knowledge of this score, how mock-melancholy are those decorated turns in bars 91, 93, 95 and later in bars 147, 149, 151; or how buoyant you can make the first theme’s restatement at bar 164 by a touch of speed; or how elated is the prevailing atmosphere that underpins this opening movement. A fellow student those many years ago who was also preparing this concerto for an exam told me that she found the most difficult bars to negotiate were bars 135-8, which thenceforward made this passage one of dread for me; even Lambden doesn’t come out of the displacement quite intact/assured.

Her approach to the middle movement is, as expected, sober and focused on highlighting the right-hand meandering above all else, including the repeated bass notes that many a pianist turns into something more than I think Bach intended; these pages enshrine a lengthy lyrical soprano line which plays top fiddle to the lugubrious left hand work which all too often moves into Beethoven Op. 31 D minor country. Again, the executant’s approach to the movement is individual, shaping the line and following its progress with a fine sensibility. Then, the final Presto is deftly carried off, even if a few notes fail to carry unless your amplification is maximal. It makes a jaunty ending to this worthy program; Lambden mightn’t have the mercurial brilliance of today’s young Bach interpreters but her readings have a reassuring probity and communicate a sense that an informed musical personality is at work.

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