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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "The Complete Clavier Suites, Vol. 1"

John Paul, lute-harpsichord

rec: 2008, Jackson, Miss., St Andrew's Cathedral
Lyrichord - LEMS 8066 (© 2008) (71'56")

English Suite No. 1 in A (BWV 806); French Suite No. 1 in d minor (BWV 812); Partita No. 1 in B flat (BWV 825) [1]

(Sources: [1] Clavier-Übung, I, 1731)

The lute-harpsichord enjoys increasing popularity among players of historical keyboards. I don't know if they are frequently used in public concerts; at least I have never seen one on a concert platform. But in particular over the last ten years or so a considerable number of discs have been released with keyboard music of the 18th century played on such an instrument. It is mostly the harpsichord oeuvre by Bach which is performed on the lute-harpsichord. That is deriving from the fact that he himself owned two such instruments. Whether that is any reason to perform his "complete clavier suites" on the lute-harpsichord as John Paul is planning to do is a different matter.

It is not known when and where the lute-harpsichord has been invented. But it seems that it was an entirely German phenomenon. The only historical sources which refer to this instrument are from Germany, where it was called Lautenklavier or Lautenwerck (the latter is the name used on this disc). It was especially popular in the first half of the 18th century. No historical instrument from that time has survived, and modern reconstructions are based on the detailed descriptions of the instrument by the German theorist Jacob Adlung.

The instrument used by John Paul is a double-manual lute-harpsichord, built by Anden Houben. But that is all that is told about it. I suppose it has at least two sets of 8' gut strings and one set of 4' brass strings. Not that it really matters, because John Paul writes that the whole recording was made with one single registration, a single peau de buffle stop. "The stop is quilled in soft leather and "brushes" the string, allowing for some slight but useful difference in dynamic according to touch speed. The stop is quite soft but very resonant, and the listener should be aware that this disc was engineered to be heard at low volume - as when listening to a clavichord recording", John Paul writes in his programme notes.

The article on the lute-harpsichord in New Grove quotes a description of one of Johann Sebastian Bach's lute-harpsichords as given by his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola. It seems Bach's instrument also had a buff stop. But it is rather odd to only use that particular stop. It was also present on many harpsichords of the time, and no harpsichordist would ever come up with the idea to play a whole programme of keyboard music by Bach with that stop alone. John Paul argues that in Bach's keyboard music the line between lute and harpsichord is indistinct with a reference to the Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998) whose manuscript says that it is intended for lute or harpsichord. But that only refers to this particular piece and doesn't tell us anything about other compositions by Bach.

The use of the buff stop alone made listening to this disc quite tiresome. Sadly it didn't take that long to get bored. That is not only due to the use of the buff stop but also to John Paul's playing. It is mostly slowish, and because of the indifferent playing in regard to articulation and touch the music plods along. A striking example is the sequence of courante 1 and 2 with the two doubles from the English Suite No. 1 in A. It takes almost 12 minutes, which is extreme in itself, but because really nothing happens it seems to drag on even longer. Too many notes are played without any variety - it is all more of the same. The playing is mostly stiff and rigid. The courante and the gigue from the Partita No. 1 in B flat come off best.

More volumes of this project are announced in the booklet, and some have already been released. I'll pass.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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