musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Fantasia & Fuge"

Léon Berben, harpsichord

rec: [n.d., n.p.]
Myrios Classics - MYR001 (© 2010) (61'37")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Chromatic fantasia and fugue in d minor (BWV 903); Fantaisie sur un Rondeau in c minor (BWV 918); Fantasia and fugue in c minor (BWV 906); Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904); Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 944); Fantasia in c minor (BWV 1121); Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922); Fantasia in b minor (BWV deest); Fantasia duobus subiectis in g minor (BWV 917); Fugue in a minor (BWV 959); Fugue on a theme by Albinoni in b minor (early version) (BWV 951a)

In the renaissance instrumental music - either for an ensemble of instruments or for single instruments like keyboard or lute - was usually based on vocal models. One of the exceptions was the fantasia, often also called ricercar in which the composer could let his fantasy freely flow. This free form continued to be used by composers in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is especially in his years in Weimar (1708 - 1717) that Bach extensively devoted himself to the form of the fantasia. In the catalogue of Bach's oeuvre we find various pieces with the title 'Fantasia', not only works for harpsichord but also organ works.

The fantasia finds its origin in Italy, where it was used for a piece of music of a strongly improvisatory nature, without a clear subject or a defined structure. Whereas the fantasias for organ are in fact large-scale chorale preludes, the fantasias for keyboard without pedal - to be played on harpsichord, clavichord or lute-harpsichord - clearly refer to the Italian origin. In some cases the fantasia is followed by a fugue, although several of them were originally conceived as separate pieces.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in d minor belongs to Bach's best-known and most popular keyboard works, often played in recitals and frequently recorded. It 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. At the same time it paved the way for the 'free fantasias' of Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel. In his programme notes Léon Berben suggests it could be interpreted 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.

Another remarkable piece is the Fantasia and fugue in c minor (BWV 906). It is from a considerably later date, possibly around 1730. The fantasia is an early form of a sonata in two parts. It attracted wide attention as the number of copies circulating in the 18th century testify, just like the Chromatic fantasia and fugue. Even more than the latter it is a highly virtuosic piece, and in his Klavierschule of 1789 Daniel Gottlob Türk printed five bars as an example of "hands changing, crossing, and intruding". The fantasia is quite strange, and the fugue - which has remained unfinished - even more so.

There have always been doubts about the authenticity of a number of pieces in the Bach catalogue. Among them are the Fugue in a minor (BWV 959) and the Fantasia in a minor (BWV 922). Berben doesn't tell anything about the fugue, but he believes the fantasia is authentic and characterizes it as "a boisterous, overwhelming, and daring model of improvisation". There is just one work in Berben's recording which belongs to Bach's late period: the Fantaisie sur un Rondeau in c minor (BWV 918), written in the form of a polonaise in just two parts. It is dated in the period Bach composed his Musicalisches Opfer.

This disc includes some lesser-known pieces. The Fugue on a theme of Albinoni is played here in an early version which has 25 measures less than the later version. Another Italian composer, Giuseppe Torelli, was the inspiration for fugue from the Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 944) which is included in the Andreas Bach Buch. The Fantaisie sur un Rondeau in c minor (BWV 918) probably dates from the 1730s or 1740s and is written in the form of a polonaise, a dance which was particularly popular at that time.

Léon Berben delivers technically brilliant and very compelling interpretations. He plays a German harpsichord, a copy of a Christian Zell of 1728, built by Keith Hill. The tempi are generally a bit faster than, for instance, Andreas Staier in his recording of 1988 (deutsche harmonia mundi). He adds a lot of ornamentation, in particular many trills, which is probably the influence of Ton Koopman, one of his teachers. I had preferred a little less in this department, and also a bit more rubato now and then. The last chord of the Chromatic fantasia and fugue is extended by a series of arpeggios - unexpected and disputable. But these are signs that Berben's performances have individual traits, and that he doesn't follow slavishly established performance habits. And that is an argument to recommend this disc, even though most compositions are available in other recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Léon Berben

CD Reviews