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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian Bach & Louis Marchand

[I] Louis MARCHAND (1669 - 1732): Pièces de clavecin
Ewa Mrowca, harpsichord
rec: Oct 8 - 9, 2020, Bergheim-Quadrath (D), St. Laurentius
Dux - 1758 (© 2021) (35'12")
Liner-notes: E/F/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

La Vénitienne; Suite in d minor; Suite in g minor

[II] "Beat Bach - A Cancelled Clavier Competition"
Alexander von Heißen, harpsichorda, clavichordb
rec: Dec 27 - 29, 2020, Schöneck (D), Katholische Kirche Christkönig
Hänssler Classic - HC22048 (© 2022) (65'30")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita in D (BWV 828)a; Partita in d minor (BWV 1004) (ciaccona)b; Louis MARCHAND: Suite in d minora

Scores JS Bach
Scores Marchand

The first decade of the 18th century saw a flow of books of harpsichord pieces being printed in France. The harpsichord collections by Louis Marchand, François Dieupart, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Jean-François Dandrieu, Gaspard Le Roux, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Nicolas Siret were all printed before the appearance of the first collection of François Couperin who was to overshadow them all.

Louis Marchand is certainly not an unknown quantity, but he is mainly known as a composer of music for organ. He was born in Lyon, and was in Paris at least from 1689. There he held several positions as organist. In 1706 he was appointed organist of the Chapelle Royale, as successor to Guillaume Gabriel Nivers. He was highly respected as a musician and teacher, but far less as a person. He soon acquired the reputation of being a difficult character, who didn't hesitate to manipulate people to boost his career. As one may expect this fuelled various stories which are difficult to prove. One of them is the famous contest with Johann Sebastian Bach which should have been held in Dresden but never actually took place because Marchand sneaked away. In 1701 Marchand's marriage was annulled, and his ex-wife pursued him with financial claims. It seems she succeeded in convincing some of his employers to pay her half of his salary. There is a story that Marchand once should have stopped playing halfway the King's mass, saying that since he was only payed half of his salary he only needed to play half of the mass.

A large portion of his oeuvre has been lost. The inventory which was made after his death includes a considerable number of manuscripts. These have never shown up. He composed some vocal works: a cantata, some sacred pieces, an opera which is lost and airs which have been included in several anthologies. Otherwise only keyboard works have come down to us. A collection of organ pieces was published after his death. During his lifetime only the two books of harpsichord pieces which Ewa Mrowca has recorded, were printed. The first book was published in 1699 and reprinted in 1701, followed by the second book in 1702. It is notable that both books comprised just one suite, whereas most books of that time included various suites in different keys.

Ewa Mrowca, in her liner-notes, mentions that - in addition to the two suites - only three separate pieces have been preserved. It is rather disappointing that she only included one of them, La Vénitienne, which is part of an anthology, published by Ballard in 1707. It is a mystery why the other two pieces have not been included, especially considering the short playing time of this disc. In 2006 Olive Music released a recording by Mario Martinoli, who plays nine pieces by Marchand which are not part of the suites. That is to say, apart from La Vénitienne they are all attributed to Marchand. As their authenticity is not established, it is understandable when a player omits them. Even so, given the small size of what is undoubtedly from Marchand's pen, there is a good reason to include them, also because it would be a shame if each piece of doubtful authenticity would be ignored.

Be that as it may, as Marchand's harpsichord suites are not that well-known and not that often performed, a recording like the present one can only be welcomed. Ewa Mrowca is a very fine player, who performs these pieces with flair and imagination. She has the help of a beautiful instrument, a copy of a harpsichord by Pierre Donzelague of 1711. That seems the right instrument, dating from Marchand's own time. I urge lovers of the harpsichord to investigate this disc, despite the short playing time.

I already referred to the story of a contest in Dresden between Bach and Marchand. The booklet to the second disc reviewed here, includes long quotations from contemporary sources about that event. Even so, it is still impossible to separate the facts from the fiction. There is no doubt that Marchand was in Dresden in 1717. However, whether a contest was planned and Marchand got cold feet about a confrontation with the German master may never be known for sure. Even so, it was taken as a source of inspiration by Alexander von Heißen to bring the composers together on disc.

In no way this is an attempt to 'reconstruct' a contest as it might have taken place in 1717. The Partita in D, from the set of six published in 1731 and known as Clavier-Übung I, dates from well after 1717. From early in his career Bach had become acquainted with the French style, and he knew Marchand's music. However, although he adopted the form of the suite, he did not imitate the French way of composing and playing. The booklet to a recording of the complete set by Pascal Dubreuil (Ramée, 2008), includes a long quotation from a report by an anonymous French traveller, probably from 1731, who heard Bach play. He was full of admiration, recognized the similarities with what he used to hear in France, but also emphasized the differences. The suite he heard was written in the German style: "very intense and full of counterpoint". That goes certainly for the suite performed here. The length of some of the dances is unusual, if one compares it with similar French pieces, in particular the allemande, which in this performance takes a little under ten minutes (Dubreuil even needs one minute more). The French traveller also wrote that Bach played the courante "not in the way we know, as this was in the Italian style". The combination with the first of Marchand's suites confirms the differences.

Italian is also the style in which Bach wrote the sonatas and partitas for violin solo. Von Heißen plays the most famous movement from this set, the ciaccona from the second partita. Bach's pupil, Johann Friedrich Agricola, mentioned that "[their] originator played them often himself on the Clavichord, and added in Harmony so much as he found necessary". There is no lack of recordings of this piece on keyboard instruments, but these are mostly the harpsichord. It is nice to hear it on the clavichord, which allows for a dynamic shading which is possible on the violin but not imitable on the harpsichord. From the perspective of repertoire, this is the most interesting part of this disc.

I have listened to this disc with satsfaction, and I like Von Heißen's playing. in Marchand he may be a little more restrained than Ewa Mrowca, but the differences may also be due to the instruments: Von Heißen plays a copy of a Ruckers of 1624. In Bach he switches from one manual to the other a bit too often; I can't see any reason for that. However, that may also be a matter of taste.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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Alexander von Heißen

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