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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Toccatas, Inventions & Sinfonias

[I] "Toccaten" (Toccatas)
Stefano Innocenti, harpsichord
rec: July 26 - 27, 2014, Parma, Palazzo Fumagalli
Stradivarius - Str 37027 (© 2015) (70'20")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Toccata in f sharp minor (BWV 910); Toccata in c minor (BWV 911); Toccata in D (BWV 912); Toccata in d minor (BWV 913); Toccata in e minor (BWV 914); Toccata in g minor (BWV 915); Toccata in G (BWV 916)

[II] "Inventionen & Sinfonien BWV 772-801"
Thomas Ragossnig, harpsichord
rec: Feb 9 - 11, 2015, Marthalen (CH), Church
Solo Musica - SM 236 (© 2016) (52'13")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Inventio No. 1 in C (BWV 772); Inventio No. 2 in c minor (BWV 773); Sinfonia No. 1 in C (BWV 787); Sinfonia No. 2 in c minor (BWV 788); Sinfonia No. 8 in F (BWV 794); Inventio No. 9 in f minor (BWV 780); Sinfonia No. 9 in f minor (BWV 795); Inventio No. 8 in F (BWV 779); Inventio No. 14 in B flat (BWV 785); Sinfonia No. 14 in B flat (BWV 800); Inventio No. 5 in E flat (BWV 776); Sinfonia No. 5 in E flat (BWV 791); Inventio No. 11 in g minor (BWV 782); Sinfonia No. 10 in G (BWV 796); Sinfonia No. 11 in g minor (BWV 797); Inventio No. 10 in G (BWV 781); Inventio No. 3 in D (BWV 774); Sinfonia No. 3 in D (BWV 789); Inventio No. 4 in d minor (BWV 775); Sinfonia No. 4 in d minor (BWV 790); Sinfonia No.12 in A (BWV 798); Sinfonia No. 13 in a minor (BWV 799); Inventio No. 13 in a minor (BWV 784); Inventio No. 12 in A (BWV 783); Inventio No. 7 in e minor (BWV 778); Sinfonia No. 6 in E (BWV 792); Sinfonia No. 7 in e minor (BWV 793); Inventio No. 6 in E (BWV 777); Inventio No. 15 in b minor (BWV 786); Sinfonia No. 15 in b minor (BWV 801)


The toccata is one of the main forms of music for a solo instrument - especially keyboard, but also plucked instruments - in the renaissance and baroque periods. It had its roots in 16th-century Italy and found its first culmination in the oeuvre of Girolamo Frescobaldi. His toccatas are specimens of the stylus phantasticus, one of the characteristics of the stile nuovo which developed in Italy around 1600. In particular Frescobaldi's model was embraced by keyboard players and composers - especially organists - of the North German organ school. A second influence came from Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in Amsterdam, who was the teacher of generations of German organists, such as Samuel Scheidt and Heinrich Scheidemann.

Bach's seven toccatas which are listed in the Schmieder catalogue under the numbers 910 to 917 date from early in his career, when he was under the influence of the North German organ school, and in particular one of its latest and greatest representatives, Dieterich Buxtehude. They were never published and probably not intended as a cycle. The Toccata in G (BWV 916) is different from the other six: in form and content it is closer to the Italian concerto than to the North German toccata. As in 1713 Bach became acquainted with the concertos of Vivaldi and other Italian masters, it is assumed that it is the latest, and dates from 1713 or shortly after.

The toccata did not have a fixed form. It was basically a (quasi-)improvisatory piece which could take various forms. In the North German organ school it developed into a piece in which episodes in free style alternated with fugal sections. In the course of time these became more formally separated, which finds its culmination in the organ oeuvre of Bach.

The manualiter toccatas have not always been taken seriously. I have found several references to rather derogatory remarks by the likes of Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer, and Albert Schweitzer. However, it seems that in Bach's time they were appreciated as several of them have been preserved in quite some copies. These are the only source for modern performers, because no autographs have come down to us. Not all of these sources are equally reliable and also show some differences which seem to reflect the various stages of the compositional process. Stefano Innocenti, in his liner-notes, doesn't pay any attention to this issue.

As these toccatas are for manuals alone they are mostly considered pieces for the harpsichord or clavichord. However, in Bach's days there was no formal division between stringed keyboard instruments and the organ. Organ works could be played at the (pedal)harpsichord or the clavichord and vice versa. It would be nice to hear these toccatas in a recording on organ. Stefano Innocenti, who is also active as an organist, decided to play them on two different harpsichords. For five of the seven toccatas he plays a copy of a French instrument, built by Pascal Taskin in 1769 and part of the Russel Collection of Musical Instruments in Edinburgh. The Toccatas BWV 914 and 916 are played on an Italian harpsichord, the replica of an instrument of 1697 by Carlo Grimaldi, preserved in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. One wonders why the latter instrument was chosen. In the case of BWV 916 is seems to be the affinity with the Italian concertos, as mentioned before. As far as BWV 914 is concerned, it closes with a fugue which is a paraphrase of a piece that in a Neapolitan source is attributed to Benedetto Marcello. This could have inspired Innocenti to choose an Italian instrument here.

This seems a mistake to me. In the choice of instrument one has to confine himself to the instruments the composer knew or had access to at the time of composing. It seems highly unlikely that Bach knew or owned an Italian instrument, or a French, for that matter. It seems much more plausible that he had the sound of the German harpsichords of his time in mind. As far as the sound is concerned, I like the Italian harpsichord much better than the Taskin which often sounds unpleasantly sharp and obtrusive. I am not sure whether that is due to the character of the instrument itself or to the copy. Maybe the acoustic and the recording have also something to do with it. It seems that Innocenti uses a meantone temperament, which leads to some notable harmonic tension, especially in the toccatas BWV 910 and 911.

Overall I liked Innocenti's performances, but in some cases I found the contrasts between sections a little underrated and here and there I would also have liked more breathing spaces and a more speech-like performance. But the sound of the Taskin harpsichord is the main reason this is not going to be one of my favourite recordings of these Toccatas.

Whereas today the manualiter toccatas are taken seriously these days, which is reflected by the number of recordings available, the Inventions and the Sinfonias are far less often played and recorded. That is understandable, because these pieces were written as study material for players with little experience. That is expressed by the title page: "Sincere instruction, in which lovers of the keyboard, especially those who are keen to learn, are shown a clear method, not only 1) of learning to play clearly in two parts, but also, after further progress, 2) of dealing well and correctly with three obligato parts. At the same time they are shown not only how to come by good ideas, but also how to develop them well. Above all, however, they are shown how to arrive at a cantabile style of playing, while also acquiring a strong foretaste of composition".

It is not known when Bach wrote them, but as he included them 1722/23 in the Clavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach it seems likely that he composed them especially for the musical education of his eldest son. A separate fair copy bears the date 'Cöthen, 1723'; they received a different name (the praeambula were renamed inventions and the fantasias became sinfonias) and were arranged in a different key order, similar to that of the Wohltemperirte Clavier. There is a connection between the two collections anyway. The German organist and composer Ernst Ludwig Gerber described the tuition his father Heinrich Nikolaus (1702-1775) received from Bach: "At the first lesson [Bach] set his Inventions before him. When he had studied these through to Bach's satisfaction, there followed a series of suites, then The Well-tempered Clavier."

It is notable that the title page also mentions the art of composing ("how to come to good ideas" and "to develop them well"). It therefore makes much sense that Dominik Sackmann, in his liner-notes to Thomas Ragossnig's recording of the inventions and sinfonias, refers to the task of organists to improvise, both in the playing of free preludes and postludes during service and in the accompaniment of congregational singing of hymns. As we have seen in the case of the harpsichord toccatas there was no watershed between the organ and stringed keyboard instruments. From that perspective these inventions and sinfonias can also be used by organists. As in the case of the toccatas it would be interesting to hear them on the organ.

Thomas Ragossnig plays a copy of a harpsichord by Michael Mietke from around 1700. This is the kind of instrument which would have been far better suited for the Toccatas Innocenti has recorded. Ragossnig decided to play the inventions and sinfonias in a different order than they are in the copy of 1723. His starting point is a copy of 1724 by the Bach pupil Bernhard Christian Kayser, in which the two- and three-part pieces in the same key are ordered in pairs. "I go a step further, combining Inventions and Sinfonias in the same key into groups of two or four. The alternation of Inventions and Sinfonias makes listening richer and more interesting than the two-part pieces followed by those in three parts."

Considering that there are not that many recordings of these pieces around - it is probably telling that no disc with them has ever landed on my desk - this performance is most welcome. The ordering of the pieces offers an interesting alternative to existing recordings which - as far as I know - follow the order of the 1723 copy. Ragossnig plays them very well and both his playing and the recording results a an optimum clarity. This recording is especially suitable for those who play these pieces themselves, but not only for them. They can be enjoyed without any educational purpose as well, although it is probably not advisable to listen to the whole lot at a stretch.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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Thomas Ragossnig

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