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CD reviews


Sigrun Stephan, clavichord

rec: Jan 3 - 6, 2017, RheinRuhr (D), Campneuf-Studios
Challenge Classics - CC72764 (© 2017) (72'44")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Württembergische Sonate No. 1 in a minor (Wq 49,1 / H 30); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo in B flat (BWV 992); Prelude in c minor (BWV 999); Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 884); Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Fantasia in a minor (F 23 / BR A26); Polonaise in e minor (F 12,8 / BR A34); Wilhelm Friedemann / Johann Sebastian BACH: Prelude in C (BWV 924a); Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL (1728-1788): Sonata No. 1 in F; Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1722): Suite in G

Sources: Johann Sebastian Bach, Wohltemperirtes Clavier, II, c1740; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Sei sonate per cembalo (Württembergische Sonaten), 1744; Johann Gottfried Müthel, III Sonates et II Ariosi avec XII Variations pour le Clavessin, 1756

The clavichord was the most widespread keyboard instrument in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was partly due to the fact that it was relatively cheap. A large part of the keyboard music written in Germany during this period can be played on the clavichord. However, in modern times it has never evolved to the status of the harpsichord or the piano. The main reason is that it produces a very soft sound, which makes it unsuited for public performances. It can only be played in the intimacy of the chamber. That could well be the reason that relatively few recordings of 17th- and 18th-century keyboard music on the clavichord are available (one of the exceptions is Miklos Spányi's series of CPE Bach recordings on BIS). That is a shame, not only because of the beauty of the instrument, but also because by playing a disc with clavichord music one won't disturb the neighbours.

The presence of several clavichords in the Bach household is well documented. As Bach only specifically required a harpsichord with two manuals in the Goldberg Variations, a large part of his keyboard oeuvre can be played on the clavichord. The Welltempered Clavier is a good example. On the present disc Sigrun Stephan demonstrates how these preludes and fugues can be played with the Prelude and fugue in G from the second volume. She opens her programme with the Prelude in c minor (BWV 999), originally written for the lute, but is - as are other lute pieces by Bach - often played on keyboard instruments. It closes with a G major chord, and therefore is a natural introduction to the ensuing suite in that key by Johann Adam Reincken. He was a celebrated organist in Hamburg, and Bach knew his oeuvre very well. However, Sigrun Stephan is wrong, when she states in her liner-notes that Bach "chose Reincken, around forty years his senior, as his teacher". They met in 1722, and Bach played before the old organist, but the latter died only shortly afterwards. The suite follows the order of dance movements which had become the standard in Germany since Froberger: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue.

Next follows the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo, Bach's only descriptive composition, which describes feelings when a brother leaves his family and friends. There has been much speculation about the identity of the brother. Some scholars suggest that this piece refers to Bach's elder brother Johann Jacob, who entered the service of the Swedish king in 1704. Others have questioned whether the brother was a relative of Johann Sebastian himself.

The first half of the programme is dominated by counterpoint. That comes off perfectly through the clarity of Ms Stephan's playing and her good articulation. The clavichord also helps: here she plays a copy of an instrument by Johann Heinrich Silbermann, built in Strassbourg in 1775. Interestingly it is of a later date than the instrument used in the second half. It has shorter strings and a smaller soundboard, which results in a brighter and more transparent sound.

The other clavichord is a copy of an instrument from 1765; the original was built by Christian Gottfried Friederici in Gera. It is excellently suited to the music played in the second half of the programme. Counterpoint still plays its part, but here we are in a different aesthetic world, the world of the Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang, which means strong contrasts in mood, dynamics and tempo between, and also within, single movements, and sudden pauses. One often gets the impression, that the music is improvised while being played and that is probably also where these pieces find their origin. We know from a meeting between Charles Burney and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, that the latter liked to improvise on his beloved clavichord. His elder brother Wilhelm Friedemann was known for his brilliant improvisations on the organ. Johann Georg Müthel was also an organist by profession and therefore well skilled in the art of improvisation.

Music was seldom specifically written for a particular keyboard instrument. Müthel's Sonata No. 1 in F, for instance, is part of a collection of three sonatas and two ariosi which was printed in 1756 in Nuremberg. The title-page says pour le Clavessin, but Menno van Delft, who recorded this collection complete (Teknon, 2004), believes that this is a translation of the German word Clavier, which at that time indicated the clavichord. Also for stylistic reasons he believes, that these pieces are specifically intended for the clavichord. "Müthel's palette of affects - from contrasting drama to cheerful melancholy and gallant Empfindsamkeit - comes out best on this very softest of keyboard instruments."

The Württembergische Sonaten, written for his pupil, Duke Karl Eugen von Württemberg, are among the first keyboard works of Carl Philipp Emanuel, which were published. He composed them between 1742 and 1744, and he wrote them on a short octave clavichord. That does not indicate that they are intended for the clavichord; the title-page doesn't refer to the Clavier, but the harpsichord (Cembalo). However, that doesn't exclude the clavichord, which was often used as an alternative, if no harpsichord was available. In this case the Friederici clavichord Sigrun Stephan plays, is particularly appropriate, because Bach preferred his instruments to others, such as those of Fritz from Brunswick and Haß from Hamburg. These sonatas are not as personal as some of Emanuel's later works, especially the fantasias, but his characteristic style certainly manifests itself. In addition to the features mentioned above the fast movements are quite virtuosic.

There can be little doubt that Wilhelm Friedemann's fantasias have their origin in improvisations. The Fantasia in a minor is one of them. The Polonaise in e minor is from a set of twelve, written as a cycle, as the sequence of keys indicates. It is notable that Friedemann included dynamic markings, suggesting the use of a keyboard instrument which allows for dynamic shading, such as the fortepiano and - as here - the clavichord. Recently I reviewed a complete recording of Friedemann's keyboard works by Claudio Astronio. Although I very much liked his performances, I regretted that he played all of them on the harpsichord. Therefore it is particularly nice that two pieces can be heard here on the clavichord, and it shows that this instrument works quite well here. The second half of this programme opens with the Prelude in C (BWV 924a), a different version of BWV 924, which is part of a collection which was put together in the 19th century under the title of Twelve Little Preludes. This version is part of the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and has been preserved in Friedemann's handwriting. It may be one of his earliest attempts as a composer, and have been written under his father's guidance.

Sigrun Stephan's performances here are just as good as in the first half. These pieces require a different approach and ask for a good sense of drama and the suggestion of improvisation. Ms Stephan leaves nothing to be desired in these departments. These are compelling performances which reveal to the full the features of the pieces she has selected. The choice of two different instruments makes much sense; their specific characteristics are perfectly suited for the two different styles represented here. Sigrun Stephan handles both instruments very well. Because of the variety in the programme and the two different instruments this disc is an excellent case for the clavichord.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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