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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Music for keyboard

[I] "Fantasy"
Christophe Rousset, harpsichord
rec: July 2009, Neuchâtel, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire
Aparté - AP010 (© 2010) (76'23")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH: Adagio in G (BWV 968); Aria variata alla maniera italiana for harpsichord in a minor (BWV 989); Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo in B flat (BWV 992); Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922); Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904); Prelude and fughetta in G (BWV 902); Prelude and fugue in F (BWV 901); Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894); Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998)

[II] "Préludes et autres fantaisies"
Violaine Cochard, harpsichord
rec: June 29 - July 1, 2010, Paris, Temple St Pierre
Agogique - AGO002 (© 2011) (62'24")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

English Suite in a minor (BWV 809) (prélude); Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922); Fantasia and fugue in c minor (BWV 906) (fantasia); Partita in c minor (BWV 826) (capriccio) [1]; Partita in B flat (BWV 825) (gigue) [1]; Prelude in c minor (BWV 999); Prelude and fughetta in G (BWV 902); Prelude and fugue in f minor (BWV 881) [3]; Sinfonia in E flat (BWV 791) [2]; Sinfonia in g minor (BWV 797) [2]; Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) (adagio); Suite in f minor (BWV 823) (sarabande); Toccata in d minor (BWV 913)

Sources: [1] Clavier-Übung, I; [2] Sinfonias a 3; [3] Wohltemperirtes Clavier, II

[III] "Keyboard works"
Jovanka Marville, clavichord
rec: August 22 - 24, 2011, Waldenburg (CH)
Passacaille - 970 (© 2011) (56'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto in D (BWV 972); Partita in E (after Partita for violin in E, BWV 1006); Prelude in C (BWV 939); Prelude in C (BWV 943); Prelude in c minor (BWV 999); Prelude in d minor (BWV 940); Prelude in e minor (BWV 941); Prelude in a minor (BWV 942); Sonata in d minor (BWV 964); Toccata in e minor (BWV 914)

Christophe Rousset's disc is entitled "Fantasy", although his programme includes just two Fantasias. But there are various other forms which are close to the fantasia, such as prelude and capriccio. In such pieces the composer isn't restricted to any rules. At the other end of the spectrum we find the fugue, which is one of the most strictly regulated forms. The majority of the compositions in his programme date from early in Bach's career. In those early works we find a strong influence of the Italian keyboard style, with the Aria variata alla maniera italiana (BWV 989) as one of the most obvious examples. At the same time Bach's early keyboard works are rooted in the North-German keyboard school which was characterised by the stylus phantasticus, which itself had its origins in Italy.

The early pieces in Bach's keyboard oeuvre are sometimes referred to as Sturm und Drang, but that term should be avoided as it is also used for some music of the generation of Bach's sons. It is true that many of these pieces are daring and boisterous. That could easily entice performers to choose very fast tempi and concentrate on displaying the virtuosic character of these pieces. Christophe Rousset has largely resisted that temptation. Some of his tempi, for instance the Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922), are quite fast, but elsewhere he opts for a rather moderate tempo, such as in the Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904. It is in such pieces that he shows his qualities as an interpreter, resulting in compelling readings. That is the case, for instance, in the Adagio in G (BWV 968) which is an arrangement of a movement from the Sonata in C (BWV 1005) for violin solo. Various other pieces on this disc were later reused: thematic material from the Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894) were reworked in the Triple Concerto (BWV 1044) and other pieces returned in the Wohltemperirte Clavier.

The Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo in B flat (BWV 992) is one of the rare examples of programme music in Bach's oeuvre. In six movements the departure of his brother and the responses from family and friends are musically illustrated. It was probably modelled after the Biblische Sonaten by Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The Aria variata alla maniera italiana is a series of variations on a melody which are played in the upper part. It is comparable to other series of variations as we know them from, for instance, Frescobaldi, or - much later - Handel's famous so-called Harmonious Blacksmith, and fundamentally different from the Goldberg variations. The latest work in the programme is the Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998) which was written for keyboard or lute.

I am generally impressed by Christophe Rousset's performances. His tempi are satisfying and he doesn't one-sidedly concentrate on the technical virtosity of the repertoire. I would have enjoyed his performances even more if he had used a bit more rubato. I also think he should have made a stronger distinction between stressed and unstressed notes. In the Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922) he changes the registration too often - which is also clearly audible - and the loud staccatos in the closing episode are not very nice. Rousset uses a beautiful instrument, built by Ruckers in 1632 and extended by a French builder - a grand ravalement - in 1745.

One of Rousset's pupils is Violaine Cochard. She also plays a programme with music by Bach on a historical instrument. It is probably the oldest harpsichord which was built by Joannes Daniel Dulcken, probably around 1740 in Antwerp. It was recently restored into playing condition, and it turns out to be an excellent vehicle for the performance of music by Bach. Ms Cochard has made a personal choice, which means that we also get some movements from larger compositions, as the track-list shows. For purchasers that may be less satisfying, but it seems that the harpsichord is in the centre of this recording anyway. The booklet pays much attention to the instrument, including beautiful pictures, but doesn't give any information about the music. The title shows that there are some similarities with the programme which Rousset has chosen; two works appear on both discs. The title also emphasizes the similarity in character between the fantasia and the prelude, as I have pointed out before.

Ms Cochard's performances are a little less contrasting, for instance in the Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922) and in the third movement from the Toccata in d minor (BWV 813). In the closing movement of the latter piece she plays too much staccato. The Fantasia in c minor (BWV 906) is particularly well played. I find the performance of excerpts from larger works rather unsatisfying, although it probably won't bother those who don't know the complete works. But I assume that almost anyone buying this disc will indeed know these pieces.

The main interest of this disc is the harpsichord. As a demonstration of its qualities it is an unqualified success.

The last disc is devoted to the clavichord. It is not absolutely clear which role this instrument played in Bach's work as a composer and performer. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was first and foremost used as an instrument for practising organ playing. One may also assume that it was used for teaching purposes. It therefore suits in particular those pieces which are of a pedagogical nature, like the Kleine Präludien (BWV 939-943). In fact, a large part of Bach's keyboard music was written for educational purposes, especially the musical education of his own sons. And one has to take into consideration that music was also frequently played within the walls of his own home, just as in the homes of many musical dilettantes. In his article on the clavichord in J.S. Bach (Oxford Composer Companions, ed. M. Boyd) David Schulenberg writes that "it seems unlikely that any of his music was composed specifically for it". That may be true - in fact, very few music was specifically written for the clavichord before the age of the Empfindsamkeit -, but that doesn't mean his music couldn't be played on it. It is quite possible that people having purchased his music played it on the clavichord which was much cheaper than the harpsichord.

The Concerto in D (BWV 972) and the Toccata in e minor (BWV 914) are very different pieces, but they both work very well on the clavichord. The other two pieces are arrangements of compositions for violin solo. Bach's student Johann Friedrich Agricola stated: "Their author often played them [the Sonatas and Partitas] himself on the Clavichord and added so much harmony as he deemed necessary." This not only justifies arrangements of these pieces for keyboard, but it also proves that Bach himself played the clavichord for his own enjoyment. Further evidence is the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) which is from Bach's own pen. Jovanka Marville adds her own transcription of the Partita in E (BWV 1006).

She is a sensible performer who effectively explores the features of the clavichord. Among them is the possibility to play forte and piano which is appropriately used in particular in the Sonata in d minor and the Concerto in D. She plays a copy by Thomas Steiner of a clavichord which was built in 1772 by Christian Gottlob Hubert. An enjoyable disc which offers a rather different perspective on some of Bach's keyboard music.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Christophe Rousset

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