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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Music for Lute-Harpsichord"

Elizabeth Farr, lute-harpsichord

rec: August 2007, Manchester, MI, Ploger Hall
Naxos - 8.570470-71 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.28'30"")

Fugue in g minor (BWV 1000); Prelude in c minor (BWV 999); Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998); Sarabanda con partite in C (BWV 990); Sonata in d minor (BWV 964); Suite in c minor (BWV 997); Suite in E (BWV 1006a); Suite in e minor (BWV 996); Suite in g minor (BWV 995)

In recent years much attention has been given to the so-called lute-harpsichord, also referred to as Lautenwerck. It is in particular the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach which is regularly recorded on such an instrument. The main reason is that we know Bach owned two lute-harpsichords. These instruments have not been preserved, but we know from the writings of the German theorist Jacob Adlung what they were like. It is this description which Keith Hill has used to reconstruct the instrument Elizabeth Farr uses in this recording.

Even though Bach owned lute-harpsichords, the title of this disc is strictly speaking wrong. Bach never specifically mentioned the lute-harpsichord, and it is therefore nonsense to suggest he composed anything for that instrument. In fact, most pieces Elizabeth Farr has chosen were originally composed for the lute or for the keyboard. Some of them are transcriptions of pieces which were originally written for other instruments, for instance the violin, like the Suite in E (BWV 1006a) and the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964). It seems plausible to perform pieces written for the lute on this instrument. But I haven't read anything which seems to suggest the lute-harpsichord was especially considered an alternative to the lute. As far as I know it was just another keyboard instrument, which could be used as an alternative to the harpsichord, just like the clavichord. In the Bach Edition of Hänssler Classics Robert Hill - Keith's brother - played many pieces which have nothing to do with the lute. There’s little overlap between Farr and Hill and as such this recording could have been a welcome addition to the catalogue. I would have welcomed it as such had I liked the playing of Elizabeth Farr. She is an excellent harpsichordist, and plays a beautiful instrument, but as on previous occasions I have considerable problems with her interpretations.

The main problem is the choice of tempo. Generally the tempi are pretty slow. The Sonata in d minor (BWV 964), for instance, takes 22:37, whereas Bob van Asperen (Aeolus) - never a speed merchant - needs just over 19 minutes. Robert Hill needs a little over 17 minutes for the Suite in E (BWV 1006a), whereas Elizabeth Farr takes 22:27. As a result some pieces virtually fall apart, the more so as the microphones have been placed very close to the instrument, resulting in a very detailed picture of the sound. The programme notes state about the Suite in g minor (BWV 995): "The Courante sounds free and improvised in spite of its clearly identifiable rhythmic scheme." The problem is that the rhythmic scheme isn't that clearly identifiable because of the slow tempo and also because Elizabeth Farr messes around with the rhythm through frequent tempo fluctuations. In other movements it is even worse. The menuets of the Suite in E (BWV 1006a) are so slow, they are hardly recognizable as such.

In some of the suites on these discs the opening movement has a strongly improvisatory character, for instance the preludes of the Suites BWV 995 - 997. Here it is certainly justified to treat the rhythm with some freedom. But that doesn't mean every movement should get the same treatment: dances should be discernible as such.

There are other features of Ms Farr's performances which I find very annoying. She adds lots of notes to what Bach has written down. Although adding ornaments is one of the basic laws of interpreting baroque music, there is every reason for restraint in Bach's music. It is generally assumed he has written out most of the ornaments he wanted performers to play. And the performances by Elizabeth Farr prove that as the surfeit of ornaments obscures the musical texture. Irritating is also the frequent change of manuals. Sometimes only a couple of bars are played on one manual, and then Ms Farr moves to the other manual. In some pieces there is every reason to do so but she also does it when there is no call for it.

I have already mentioned that the microphones have been situated very close to the instrument. That results in a very detailed recording of almost every single note, which - in combination with the slow tempo - makes some pieces disintegrate. It also makes the action of the instrument too clearly audible, in particular while listening with headphones.

The programme of these discs is certainly interesting encompassing as it does a number of pieces from outside the harpsichord’s core repertoire. If played well, the lute-harpsichord is a fine instrument with an exquisite sound. It is just sad that the interpretations and the recording are largely unsatisfying.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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