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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Keyboard works

[I] "Imagine"
Jean Rondeau, harpsichord
rec: June 2 - 6, 2014, Paris, Notre-Dame du Bon Secours
Erato - 2564622009 (© 2015) (79'56")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Adagio in G (BWV 968); Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971); Partita in d minor (BWV 1004 (chaconne, arr Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897); Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) (arr Stéphane Delplace, *1953); Sonata in d minor (BWV 964); Suite in c minor (BWV 997)

[II] "Works for Harpsichord"
Aapo Häkkinen, harpsichord
rec: Feb 17 - 19, 2014, Karjaa, S:ta Katarina kyrka
Naxos - 8.573078 (© 2015) (78'54")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Capriccio in honorem Johann Christoph Bachi in E (BWV 993); Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922); Fantasia duobus subjectis in g minor (BWV 917); Fantasia sur un Rondeau in c minor (BWV 918); Fugue in C (BWV 952); Fugue in c minor (BWV 961); Fugue in a minor (BWV 959); Prelude in C (BWV 933); Prelude in c minor (BWV 934); Prelude in D (BWV 936); Prelude in d minor (BWV 935); Prelude in E (BWV 937); Prelude in e minor (BWV 938); Prelude and fugue in d minor (BWV 899); Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 900); Prelude and fugue in A (BWV 896); Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 895); Suite in E flat (BWV 819); Suite in A (BWV 832); Suite in a minor (BWV 818)


Every year a number of discs with keyboard works by Bach are released. The repertoire is mostly rather predictable: the Goldberg variations, the Partitas (Clavier-Übung I), the English or French suites etc. The discs to be reviewed here are a little different: both include repertoire which is less often played or played in a different way. The latter goes for the recording by Jean Rondeau.

With 'Imagine' the young French harpsichordist makes his solo debut on disc. It is a hazardous enterprise to start with Bach. That is something he is well aware of, and it is the reason he focuses on the phenomenon of the transcription. "(...) I was thinking that the subject of transcriptions, nibbling here and there to make my way into the subject, remained approachable, like a learning exercise (...). Because transcription is done in order to understand how music is made, it remains a workbench job." He has not been so bold as to present his own transcriptions. He has selected either transcriptions by Bach himself or by others.

Rondeau opens with the Suite in c minor (BWV 997) which was probably originally conceived for the lute or the lute-harpsichord. It also exists in harpsichord versions in various manuscripts. It sounds very idiomatic on the latter instrument as if it was written for it. It seems very likely that the harpsichord version is from Bach's own pen. That is not the case with the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) which is a transcription of the Sonata in a minor (BWV 1003) for solo violin. Its author is not known; in the booklet it is suggested it could have been made by Bach's son Wilhelm Friedemann, but it is also possible that his son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol is the author. One should rather call it an arrangement, because although the original violin version is basically polyphonic it is not enough to merely play the original notes. That is even more the case with the Partita in e minor, an arrangement of the Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) for solo transverse flute. Here the polyphony has to be constructed as the flute can only play one note at once. Rondeau has turned here to an arrangement by the French composer Stéphane Delplace. He is not a baroque, let alone a Bach specialist, as far as I could find out on the internet. I am not in the position to assess whether he does justice to Bach's idiom, but I am not convinced by this arrangement from a musical point of view. It is a bit thin if one compares it with the BWV 964.

A special case is the famous chaconne from the Partita in d minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin. It may come as a surprise that Rondeau has chosen to play here the piano transcription for the left hand by Johannes Brahms. In itself it is certainly a highly respectable arrangement and it works not badly on the harpsichord - Rondeau plays it with two hands, by the way - but it was written for an instrument with dynamic possibilities the harpsichord doesn't have. There were various passages where I didn't find this transcription that convincing; an original harpsichord arrangement as we know them from, for instance, Leonhardt and Van Asperen, seems preferable. In comparison the Adagio in G (BWV 968), a transcription of the adagio from the Sonata in C (BWV 1005) for solo violin, which is attributed to Wilhelm Friedemann, makes a much better impression.

The inclusion of the Italian Concerto seems a little surprising: this is an original work and not a transcription. But Rondeau points out the similarity with Italian instrumental concertos. One could call it a transcription of a non-existing concerto.

I have mixed feelings about Rondeau's choice of transcriptions. In some cases I would have preferred a different version, although I don't know if these are available. That goes especially for the Partita BWV 1013; as far as I can remember it is the first time I have heard this piece in a version for harpsichord. But I have no reservations in regard to Rondeau's playing. Considering that he also likes to play jazz one would probably expect a very extroverted musician but he is rather restrained - in a good way, I hasten to add, because his playing is anything but boring. His tempi are mostly on the moderate side, and in the case of the andante from the Italian Concerto I prefer a faster tempo; this is too much like an adagio. In the fast movements I would have liked more of the rubato and other agogical liberties he has taken in other pieces although he never exaggerates in this department as well.

All in all this is a promising debut and it will be interesting to see how he will develop, also in regard to the choice of repertoire. I hope he will be ready to explore uncommon grounds and not confine himself to the well-trodden paths.

Whereas Rondeau plays mostly well-known pieces in a different way Aapo Häkkinen has put together a programme of compositions which are not that often played and recorded. Most of them date from Bach's formative period and "[several] of them illustrate the young Bach experimenting with counterpoint, harmony and form", as Caroline Waight puts it in her liner-notes. That does not mean that these pieces are rather simple; some of them are in fact quite virtuosic, such as the Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922). Most of the pieces played here are not that well-known in comparison with the more famous collections such as the English and French suites. The latter are especially relevant here as the disc includes three suites which are close in character to those two sets.

The six preludes which are catalogued as BWV 933 to 938 are generally considered as belonging together, especially because they are based on ascending keys. However, it seems that they have been written at different stages of Bach's career. They have won some popularity among organists even though they are clearly intended for the harpsichord. But as we know there is no watershed between the repertoire for these instruments. The Capriccio in honorem Johann Christoph Bachi in E (BWV 993) - the dedicatee is Bach's older brother who took care of him after the death of his father - includes a passage for pedal which suggests that it was originally conceived as an organ piece.

Not all the items are early works. The Fantasia sur un Rondeau in c minor (BWV 918) has been preserved in a manuscript from Bach's Leipzig period. The title - probably not by Bach himself - suggests that it is based on a French harpsichord piece. We know that Bach was highly interested in French keyboard music and his own compositions show that he was influenced by what he had learned from composers like d'Anglebert, Dieupart and Couperin.

Since some years Aapo Häkkinen plays Bach's harpsichord works - for instance the concertos - on copies of harpsichords by Johann Adolph Hass which include a 16' stop. In this case he uses a copy by Frank Rutkowski and Robert Robinette of 1970 which was once owned by the American harpsichordist Igor Kipnis. It is not an exact copy: the original 2' has been replaced by a peau de buffle register with leather plectra. The whole issue of the authenticity and dissemination of such harpsichords and the way they were used is a subject of debate among scholars and performers. In the regard to this disc the main question is whether such instruments were already built during Bach's formative years when most of the repertoire played here was written. The earliest extant instrument by Hass dates from the 1730s; the harpsichord Häkkinen plays here is a copy which is assumed to date from 1760. That sheds considerable doubt on the use of such instruments in the early decades of the 18th century.

Putting this matter aside and focusing on the performances I have to say that I was quite disappointed and often even annoyed while listening to Häkkinen's performances. Too often he changes manuals; I don't see any reason why a repeat has to be played on another manual or with a different registration; the fugue from the Prelude and fugue in A (BWV 896) which opens the programme is just one example. Sometimes the contrasts are pretty extreme, for instance in the sarabande from the Suite in a minor (BWV 818). It is often pretty much alike organists changing the registration too often. There is mostly hardly any need and it tends to damage the coherence of a composition. In several pieces Häkkinen uses the 16' to bring a piece to a thunderous close. This is too demonstrative. There are some odd combinations of stops with don't work well, for instance the 16' and 4' in the Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 900). In some pieces the harpsichord produces an ugly sharp sound (it reminded me of a gamelan), probably due to the use of a specific stop; that is especially the case in the Fantasia duobus subjectis in g minor (BWV 917) and the allemande from the Suite in E flat.

Whereas Häkkinen tends to do too much in the registration department he does too little as far as the use of agogic means is concerned. A little rubato in the 'little preludes' (BWV 933 - 938) would have been very nice. Here they are too straightforward, and that goes for other pieces as well.

There is little chance that I will ever return to this disc. If you have a more than average interest in the performance practice of Bach's keyboard works this disc could be interesting because of the way this type of harpsichord is used. But if you want to have a satisfying recording of these lesser-known works you probably should look elsewhere.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Jean Rondeau
Scherzi Musicali

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