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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Clavier-Übung I & II

[I] Clavier-Übung I
Pascal Dubreuil, harpsichord

rec: Oct 2007, Basse-Bodeux (B), Église de Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Ramée - RAM 0804 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.39'35")

[II] Clavier-Übung I
Benjamin Alard, harpsichord

rec: May 2009, Paris, Notre-Dame de Bon Secours
Alpha - 157 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.35'40")

[III] Clavier-Übung II
Pascal Dubreuil, harpsichord

rec: Oct 2008, Basse-Bodeux (B), Église de Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Ramée - RAM 1001 (© 2010) (65'01")

[I, II] Partita No 1 in B flat (BWV 825); Partita No 2 in c minor (BWV 826); Partita No 3 in a minor (BWV 827); Partita No 4 in D (BWV 828); Partita No 5 in G (BWV 829); Partita No 6 in e minor (BWV 830)
[III] Ouvertüre nach französischer Art in b minor (BWV 831); Concerto nach italiänischem Gusto in F (BWV 971); Chromatic fantasia and fugue in d minor (BWV 903); Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998)

In comparison to other composers of his time Johann Sebastian Bach hasn't published large quantities of music. The Clavier-Übung, which is now referred to as 'part I' was the first commercial publication, and was printed as his 'opus 1' in 1731. It is in fact a compilation of six partitas which he had composed during several years. The title refers to two collections with harpsichord suites which Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660 - 1722), had published in 1689 and 1692 respectively, both entitled Neue Clavier-Übung. These consisted of seven suites each, and it has been suggested Bach was also aiming at publishing seven suites. But only six were printed, and some - for instance Pascal Dubreuil in the programme notes of his recording of the set - think that the Ouvertüre nach französischer Art (BWV 831), which was later included in the Clavier-Übung II, could have been originally planned as the seventh suite.

The form of the partitas or suites for keyboard was very common in Bach's days, and the various dances and galanteries they included were not unusual either. Nevertheless this set is unique for Bach's time because of its technical requirements. In his days only music was printed which was playable for a wide circle of music lovers. Publications of music which only the most skilled performers were able to play wasn't profitable. But that is exactly what the Clavier-Übung is. Gilles Cantagrel, in his programme notes of Benjamin Alard's recording, quotes the financée of the poet and literary theorist Johann Christoph Gottsched: "The pieces that have arrived [the partitas] are as difficult as they are beautiful. If I play them ten times, I still feel myself to be a beginner with them", because they were "extraordinarily difficult".

In his Partitas Bach shows himself to be a representative of the goûts réunis, in that they contain Italian, French and German elements. The opening movements point that out already. The Partitas I and V begin with a Praeludium, a form of Italian origin which the Germans had taken over. The Partita II begins with an Italian Sinfonia, the Partita IV with a French ouverture. The Partita VI starts with a toccata, modelled after the organ toccatas of the North-German organ school, which Bach had heard as he visited Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck. The various dances also bear French (allemande, gavotte, sarabande) or Italian (corrente, sarabanda) names. And there are movements which belong to the category of galanteries: menuet I & II (Partita I), capriccio (Partita II), burlesca and scherzo (Partita III).

It is probably both the technically demanding character of these Partitas as well as the variety they contain which make these works very popular among keyboard players. They are frequently recorded, and if I am not mistaken there are more recordings of these Partitas than of the English or French suites. The interpretations by Pascal Dubreuil and Benjamin Alard are the latest of a long list of available recordings.

It is obvious to compare them, but only to give a fair characterisation, as there are many fine recordings to choose from, which are still on the market. Pascal Dubreuil and Benjamin Alard are both very fine harpsichordists, and they both play beautiful instruments. Dubreuil uses an instrument by Ton Crijnen (Amsterdam, 1996), a copy of a harpsichord by Hans Ruckers II from 1624. It has a strong sound, which is even reinforced by the rather direct recording. Benjamin Alard plays a German harpsichord by Anthony Sidey; the booklet doesn't give any further information as after which instrument it has been modelled. It is a somewhat softer instrument, and it seems the microphones were a little further away from the instrument than in Dubreuil's recording.

Generally speaking I prefer Dubreuil in the opening movements. His performances are more dramatic and contain stronger contrasts, which is partly due to his use of rubato. This way he creates an amount of tension one seldom finds in Alard's performances. That is very obvious, for instance, in the praeludium of Partita I and the ouverture of Partita IV. My only reservation is the toccata of Partita VI. It is, like I wrote, modelled after the North-German organ toccata, consisting of three sections: the first and the last have a strongly improvisatory character, whereas the middle section is a fugue. In Dubreuil's performance there is hardly any contrast between the first and third section on the one hand and the fugue on the other. This is a bit better in Alard's performance. He has chosen a good tempo, whereas Dubreuil is a bit too slow in my opinion.

That is a general feature of Dubreuil's interpretations. In particular the fast movements are often a little too slow. That is the case, for instance, in the giga of Partita I and the allemande of Partita II. In the fast movements Alard often has the better tempo, and he also exposes the rhythmic pulse generally better. As a result he delivers swinging performances as in particular the three last movements of Partita III (burlesca, scherzo and gigue) show. But in the slow movements, for instance the sarabandes, Dubreuil has the upper hand, as his performances are generally more compelling than Alard's. The most striking example is the sarabande from Partita VI, where Dubreuil takes 5'49", whereas Alard needs 7'02", which damages the musical flow.

This is partly a matter of taste, of course, and the choices of both players are defensible. Even so, I believe that Dubreuil is right in emphasizing the dramatic and more improvisatory character of the first movements. Here I think Alard's interpretation is too straightforward. On the other hand, considering the importance of the rhythmic pulse in dance movements, Alard's performances are admirable in bringing them to the fore. On the whole I probably slightly prefer Dubreuil, but I am glad that I have them both as each of them has many nice things to offer.

Pascal Dubreuil himself has written the comprehensive programme notes for his recording, and he particularly offers interesting ideas about the influence of classical rhetorics on Bach's compositions. In the booklet of the Alpha disc Charles Cantagrel confines himself to a description of the historical backgrounds.

Four years after Clavier-Übung I, the second part was published in Nuremberg. It consisted of just two pieces: the Concerto nach Italiänischem Gusto, better known as the Italian Concerto, and the Ouverture nach französischer Art or French Overture. Like the Clavier-Übung I, there is nothing notable here in regard to the character of the compositions itself or the various movements they contain. What is remarkable, though, is that both pieces were specifically intended to be played at a harpsichord with two manuals. Two-manual instruments were not uncommon, but as it is unlikely many music lovers owned such an instrument, it was unusual for a composer to specifically ask for it. And it shows that this collection, like the first, was not written for the common player of the keyboard.

In this collection Bach's pays tribute to the two main styles in vogue in Europe, the French and the Italian. Years before he had discovered the concertos by Italian composers, in particular Antonio Vivaldi, and he transcribed a number of them for organ and for harpsichord. It is clear that the Italian Concerto is modelled after Vivaldi's instrumental concertos. The French Overture may be predominantly French, it still bears the traces of the goût réuni, as it ends with an 'Echo', whose dynamic contrasts point into the direction of the Italian instrumental concerto.

In addition to these two works Pascal Dubreuil plays two other pieces which belong to the best-known from Bach's oeuvre: the Chromatic fantasia and fugue in d minor and the Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat. The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is unique in Bach's oeuvre, and it is a kind of 'free fantasia' whose origins are in the stylus phantasticus which is a feature of the North-German organ school, and at the same time paved the way for the 'free fantasias' of Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is sometimes suggested it could be written as a kind of tombeau for Bach's first wife Maria Barbara, who died in 1720. It is impossible, though, to put a date on this work. Some think it dates from around 1720, whereas surviving manuscript copies suggest Bach could have written this work before 1717.

The Prelude, allegro and fugue is one of a small number of pieces which can be played on a keyboard instrument - harpsichord, clavichord or lute-harpsichord - as well as the lute. It is probably written in the 1740s, and could be composed for Silvius Leopold Weiss, the famous lute player at the Dresden court, although there is no firm evidence of this. In his programme notes Dubreuil links this piece to the Prelude and fugue in E flat (BWV 552) which opens and closes the Clavier-Übung III, containing a series of chorale arrangements, ordered according to Martin Luther's Catechism. Like the prelude and fugue the Prelude, allegro and fugue is dominated by the number 3, traditionally associated with the Holy Trinity.

I listened to this disc first, and the notes I made while listening all referred to features of Dubreuil's performances I recognized in his interpretations of the Clavier-Übung I. As I generally liked the latter, I have also found much enjoyment in the performance of Clavier-Übung II and the two additional pieces. But I have some reservations too.

The Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat is the highlight of this disc: the prelude is played in a beautifully relaxed manner, whereas the fugue is compelling and very well articulated - which is especially important because of its polyphonic character. The allegro gets a really sparkling performance.

The Chromatic fantasy and fugue is played well, but I am not sure that most of this piece has to be played with coupled manuals or two 8' stops. In the case of the Italian Concerto I think that the contrasts which Bach has indicated are very well realised, but that the tempi are a bit slowish. The first movement has no tempo indication, but in my view it could be played a bit faster. The second movement is an andante, which is not slow, but moderately fast, and the duration of 4'22" is more appropriate for an adagio. The closing movement is a presto, and again the tempo Dubreuil has chosen seems to slow. In short, I was a little underwhelmed by this performance.

The French Overture is well done. The overture is beautifully played, although not all the repeats are observed, and there is some overdose of trills here. The courante is particularly well articulated, the rhythmic pulse of gavotte I and II is excellently exposed and the sarabande is performed with good expression and in the appropriate tempo. The passepied I is a little too rigid, especially because of the staccato-like articulation. The 'echo' is again a bit too slow, and it lacks some of the excitement it causes in other performances. Lastly - like in Clavier-Übung I - I noted with satisfaction that Dubreuil isn't afraid of using rubato here and there, for instance in the opening phrase of the first movement of the Italian Concerto.

For this recording Pascal Dubreuil has again written extensive programme notes, and his interpretation of the various pieces on the programme in the light of the then current views on rhetorics and music are very interesting and give much food for thought.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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