Klavierubung I: 6 Partiten. Band 1: BWV 825-827. Band 2: BWV 828-830.
The text of Bach's keyboard partitas is not without its problems. Early versions of numbers 3 and 6 are preserved in autograph in the 1725 Clavierbuchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach. The six works then appeared individually in engraved editions, roughly one a year, beginning in 1726; a collected revised edition was issued in 1731.
Exemplars of the latter furnished the principal source for most editions until 1976, when Richard Douglas Jones published a text (Neue Bach-Ausgabe [NBA] V/l) that incorporated handwritten alterations from an exemplar thought to have been J.S. Bach's personal copy (Handex-emplar). Christoph Wolff subsequently pointed to further handwritten alterations in three other exemplars thought to stem from the Bach circle, one of them, in the Library of Congress, containing entries of "autograph character" ("Text-Critical Comments on the Original Print of the Partitas," in Bach: Essays on His Life and Music [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991], 218).
The present edition appears to be the first to incorporate most of the readings of all four altered exemplars in its main text. It does so, however, without echoing Wolff's cautions about the origin and status of the alterations and, surprisingly, without identifying the Handexemplar - listed here by Jones's siglum, "G 23" - as such. Hence users of older editions will find many unfamiliar readings - most of them added ornaments and appoggiaturas - whose somewhat doubtful character is not indicated in any way in the main text.
Otherwise the text appears sound, and the "new" readings are properly identified in the critical notes. The latter are helpfully prolix on a few details, such as the chord on the downbeat of m. 8 of the Sarabande of the A-minor Partita, where the reading adopted is superior to that of the NBA.
Yet nonspecialists will find these notes generally unenlightening about the sources, particularly if they consult only the English version of the notes, which contains some infelicities (e.g., "single editions" for Einzeldrucke, the individual editions of 1726-30). The presentation of the two (actually four) versions of the second half of the Gigue of the A-minor Partita is especially misleading, the version of the Washington exemplar (NBA's "G 25") preceding that of the unaltered print; readings from one of the other altered exemplars ("G 26") are given as footnotes. Specialists will wonder how carefully the editor examined the eleven printed exemplars and several manuscript copies listed here; these, in fact, include the most important sources consulted by Jones and Wolff, but little if any new information about them is offered.
The notes on performance are evidently intended for pianists, although questions of instrumental medium are avoided (nothing is said about use of the damper pedal, for example). Alongside occasional helpful hints and commonsense suggestions are many arbitrary pronouncements about tempo and articulation and much debatable (when not faulty) information about ornaments, rhythmic conventions, and other aspects of performance practice.
Typical are the characterizations of the keys of the works - for example, E minor possesses "universal power" (an odd rendering of grosser als der Mensch, machtig: superhuman, powerful) - and the identification of certain movements as "galant" or "French" in style. Information of this sort is virtually meaningless, especially to now ices. Particularly unfortunate is the arbitrary direction to interpret the Gigue of the Sixth Partita, notated under an archaic duple time signature, in 24/8, following the supposed model of the Gigue from Johann Jacob Froberger's Suite VII, which exists in an alternate triple-time version. It hardly follows that Froberger's duple-time gigues are to be played in triple time - let alone Bach's.
The critical notes make much of an attempt "to re-create as closely as possible the visual appearance of the original edition," but this seems to have been limited chiefly to the retention of original beaming for small note values. This is laudable but hardly innovative, and the text is at the same time provided with fingerings that, although insufficient for ready reading by a student - for instance, there are relatively few fingerings for the left hand - are sufficient to indicate a generally legato, pianistic approach to the music.
It is through editions such as this one that banal modern conventions and doubtful precepts about historical performing practice are perpetuated. Students may desire guidance on matters of performance, and publishers will understandably wish for some means to distinguish their editions of canonic works from those of competitors. But a few pages of summary annotations are more likely to mislead than to help beginners in grappling with the crucial interpretive problems posed by these pieces. And the inclusion of an extensive (but hardly comprehensive) listing of variant readings alongside an inadequate evaluation of the sources themselves results in a volume that presents only the appearance of a critical edition.
DAVID SCHULENBERG University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill