musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Keyboard music of the 17th and 18th centuries

[I] "Journey"
Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord
rec: August 20 - 21, 2014, Canterbury, University of Kent (Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall)
Linn Records - CKD 570 (© 2016) (68'51")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): French Suite No. 6 in E (BWV 817); John BULL (1562/63-1621): The King's Hunt; William BYRD (c1540-1623): The Carman's Whistle; Antonio DE CABEZÓN (c1510-1566): Diferencias sobre El canto del caballero; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Balletto I & II; Toccata IX; George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759): Chaconne in G (HWV 435); Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in D (K 490); Sonata in D (K 491); Sonata in D (K 492); Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): O ye tender babes

[II] "Cembalo cantabile"
Tatjana Vorobjova, harpsichord
rec: Sept 2013, Cologne
Amati - ami 2602/1 (60'38")
Liner-notes: D
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): French Suite No. 4 in E flat (BWV 815); Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (BWV 691); Joseph-Hector FIOCCO (1703-1741): 1e Suite (La Plaintive; adagio; andante; vivace); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Suite in D (L'Entretien des Muses); Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in d minor (K 517); Sonata in E flat (K 253); Sonata in f minor (K 481); Sonata in g minor (K 234)

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Pieces de clavessin avec une methode pour la mechanique des doigts, 1724; Joseph-Hector Fiocco, Pičces de clavecin, op. 1, 1730

Discs with keyboard recitals are released on a regular basis. It is mostly young players who present themselves, for instance after having won a competition. In some cases the chance to make a CD is part of the prize of such a competition. The discs under review here are different in regard to repertoire but also in regard to the status of the performers.

Let me start with a disc by a veteran in the field of historical keyboard playing. Trevor Pinnock (*1946) was an early exponent of historical performance practice on the harpsichord, of the generation after Gustav Leonhardt. He is old enough to have heard recordings of the likes of George Malcolm and Rafael Puyana and being inspired by them. It was the time the playing of historical instruments was in its infancy. I vividly remember some of his first recordings, for instance with English keyboard music. Through his recordings I also became acquainted with the harpsichord oeuvre of Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This disc is called "Journey". It is a journey through two centuries of keyboard music from different parts of Europe but also - and primarily - "a reflection of my own discovery of music and of the journey on which I embarked at an early age", as Pinnock writes in the booklet. The largest part of the programme is pretty familiar. John Bull's The King's Hunt is a showpiece from the repertoire of the English virginalists and Byrd's The Carman's Whistle is also well-known. The variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End are by far the best-known piece from the pen of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and the three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti belong among his most frequently played. Bach's French Suites are available in many recordings. The only exceptions are the pieces by Cabezón and Tallis and probably also the Frescobaldi items. Handel's keyboard works are also not part of the standard repertoire of harpsichordists, with the exception of the eight suites from 1720.

Those who have experienced the first stages in the emergence of historical performance practice will probably listen to this disc with some nostalgia. One can only have much respect for what people like Trevor Pinnock have contributed. But I wonder whether this disc is the best way to keep the memory of his work alive. In recent years some of his early recordings have been reissued and these are much more recommendable than the present disc. The early pieces come off best, especially the English items. In comparison the Frescobaldi pieces are a bit dull. I have never been able to become accustomed to Pinnock's Bach interpretation. His playing is pretty straightforward, with little rhythmic freedom. For that reason I didn't like his recording of Bach's six Partitas as part of Hänssler's Bach Edition. For me there is little to enjoy here as well. The three sonatas by Scarlatti are also a bit disappointing, especially K 490; I have heard little of the cantabile the character indication asks for.

"Some listeners may be surprised that I should record such a wide range of music on one instrument. I do so simply because this is essentially a recital rather than a historical demonstration", Pinnock writes. In a way I can understand that, but unfortunately the use of a single instrument has a rather negative effect on the musical outcome. English virginal music doesn't come off to optimum effect on the copy of a mid-18th-century Hemsch. The same goes for Sweelinck, Cabezon and Frescobaldi. And the only piece which suits this instrument well, Bach's French Suite No. 6, receives a disappointing interpretation. If you want to enjoy Pinnock's qualities you should look for the reissues of his early recordings, originally released by CRD.

On the next disc we meet a performer of a later generation. Whereas Pinnock made a journey through time and across Europe, Tatjana Vorobjova confines herself to music from the first half of the 18th century, most of which can be played on one and the same instrument without any problem. That instrument is a copy of a Ruckers with a French ravalement, built by Titus Crijnen, a well-known keyboard builder from the Netherlands. One could argue that the sonatas by Scarlatti would be better served by an Italian or Spanish harpsichord. However, we should remember that the Spanish court, where the composer worked most of his life, owned harpsichords from several parts of Europe, including French instruments.

Born in Riga in Latvia Tatjana Vorobjova first studied the piano but her interest in early music and especially the harpsichord inspired her to study with Ketil Haugsand in Oslo and Cologne and Herman Stinders in Brussels. She now lives in Cologne and performs as a harpsichordist in solo programmes and also as a basso continuo player in orchestras and chamber music ensembles. "Her particular concern, expressed in richness of sound, dynamism and refined nuance, is a search for the expansion of expressive possibilities of the instrument both in solo and continuo", says a short description at Amazon. Her performances on the present disc fully live up to this ideal.

She opens with the French Suite No. 4 which has what is missing in Pinnock's performance. She takes more freedom but her well-judged rubato is never exaggerated, but just keeps things interesting and makes one listen carefully. Next come four pieces from the Pičces de clavecin op. 1 by Joseph-Hector Fiocco, son of an Italian-born composer who had settled in the southern Netherlands. His roots and his activities in a region which was under strong French influence explain the mixture of Italian and French elements in his keyboard oeuvre. The first piece is an adagio which is performed with supreme lyricism. It is followed by La Plaintive, a piece in the tradition of the French tombeau. It receives a highly expressive interpretation, which includes a subtle but very effective application of notes inégales. After an elegant andante the sequence ends with a purely Italian vivace whose dramatic character is explored to the full.

Next is L'Entretien des Muses by Jean-Philippe Rameau; this piece was later partly included in his music for the stage. In her liner-notes Tatjana Vorobjova states that Rameau's passion always concentrated on the harpsichord. That is debatable; I think his real passion was rather opera and that his keyboard works show that he had theatrical blood in his veins.

The four Scarlatti sonatas are not related by key, but even so they are ordered here in the form of sonata da chiesa: andante, allegro, andante e cantabile and prestissimo. The Sonata in f minor (K 481) is probably the best-known of the four. All of them receive excellent performances and are played with flair and imagination. I like, to mention just one aspect, the beautiful fluent motion in the Sonata in E flat (K 253). Again a sensible application of rubato helps to increase the tension.

The disc ends with a very fine and really moving performance of the chorale Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (BWV 691) by Johann Sebastian Bach. Such pieces, for manual alone, are well suited to the harpsichord and Tatjana Vorobjova's realisation of the many trills is really outstanding, played with subtlety and intensity. It rounds off a fine disc which I have enjoyed very much. This is cantabile playing of the highest order.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Trevor Pinnock

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