musica Dei donum

CD reviews

BACH Family: "Bach and Sons - Clavichord and Flute"

Benjamin-Joseph Steens, clavichorda; Jacques-Antoine Bresch, transverse fluteb

rec: May 23 - 24, 2011, Freyr, Villa Les Pommiers
EPR Classic - EPRC 011 ( 2011) (63'38")
Liner-notes: E/F/N
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Fantasia for keyboard in C (Wq 61,6 / H 291)a [1]; Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in C (Wq 87 / H 515)ab; Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in Cab; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Prelude, fugue and allegro for harpsichord in E flat (BWV 998)a; Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute in E flat (BWV 1031)ab; Sonata for keyboard and transverse flute/violin in g minor (BWV 1020)ab; Wilhelm Friedemann BACH 91710-1784): Sonata for keyboard in a minor (F nv 8) (poco allegro)a

Sources: [1] Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien nebst einigen Rondos fr Kenner und Liebhaber, vi, 1785/86

The clavichord is one of the lesser-known instruments. On disc it isn't represented too badly, and in particular the keyboard music of the mid-18th century is often played on it, but one doesn't hear it often in public concerts. The main reason is obvious: it produces a sound which is too soft and too refined for today's concert venues. The instrument was mainly meant to be used in private homes or the - often rather small - salons of the aristocracy. Even in smallish rooms one has too sit pretty close to the instrument to hear it. Any attempt to make it louder, either by forcing the dynamical possibilities or by electronic means, completely destroys its characteristics.

There is general agreement that the clavichord was often played in keyboard music, not only in the 18th century, but also in previous centuries. According to Jacques-Antoine Bresch in his liner-notes the clavichord was played well into the 19th century. A disc with solo keyboard music on clavichord is quite common: Miklos Spnyi uses it frequently in his project of the recording of the complete keyboard oeuvre of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Gustav Leonhardt and Siebe Henstra are examples of performers who used it in music of the 17th century (Georg Bhm and Matthias Weckmann respectively). Recordings with the clavichord playing with other instruments are extremely rare. According to Bresch it was frequently used this way in the 18th century, though.

Bresch doesn't provide firm documentary evidence of the clavichord being used as an ensemble instrument. He quotes Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, but he seems to refer mainly to the clavichord for the accompaniment of singers. According to the article about the clavichord in New Grove it was specifically mentioned on the title pages of song collections. Otherwise it is hardly possible to be sure exactly when it was used. The choice of the keyboard was mostly left to the performer, and the general German indication of clavier - or similar names in other languages - includes both the harpsichord and the clavichord.

From that perspective this disc is a kind of experiment, and a very interesting and challenging one, I would like to add. The transverse flute is probably the most appropriate instrument to play with the clavichord. It is naturally not too loud and not very penetrating - in contrast, for instance, to the recorder or the oboe. It is perfectly able to produce a soft and subtle sound and that is exactly what is required here.

The music on this disc is from a time when the clavichord was probably more appreciated than at any time in history. That has everything to do with its expressive capabilities. It was pre-eminently able to express the fashion of the Empfindsamkeit. One of the most prominent exponents of this style was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and it is no surprise that he loved the instrument more than the harpsichord or the fortepiano. Not only his music for keyboard solo but also his chamber music reflect this sensitive and expressive style. That comes well off in these performances by Benjamin-Joseph Steens and Jacques-Antoine Bresch. Despite the flute being able to play softly it is not easy to create a satisfying balance between the two instruments. It is different from that between the flute and the harpsichord or the fortepiano. If the clavichord was indeed regularly used in combination with other instruments we probably need to change our concept of the ideal balance between keyboard and melody instrument in sonatas as those played here. But maybe it was generally accepted that the balance could differ dependent on the keyboard which was chosen.

The performances are pretty much ideal, and if you would like to know how the clavichord could be used in chamber music, this disc is not to be missed. The playing is energetic and expressive. Steens explores the dynamic possibilities of the clavichord to the full, and Bresch brilliantly adapts his dynamic shading to the character of the clavichord. If you want to get the right picture of the latter you should not turn up the volume control of your equipment. It will take some time to adapt your ears to the soft sound of the instruments but it is well worth it.

This disc is highly interesting from a historical point of view, the performances are outstanding, and the whole concept of this disc is artistically challenging and should encourage to research the use of the clavichord as an ensemble instrument more thoroughly. The documentation is under par. The catalogue numbers of the sonatas by Johann Christoph Friedrich and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach are omitted. Only in the case of the latter I was able to find the right number.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

Relevant links:

Benjamin-Joseph Steens

CD Reviews