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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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The Secret Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (Rust version BWV 903A) Hass [12.59]
Adagio in G major BWV 968 Hass [3.48]
Fugue in G minor (after BWV 1000) Hass [5.38]
From the Clavier-büchlein für Wilhelm Friedmann Bach:

Allemande in G minor BWV 836 Bodechtal [1.47]
Menuet 1 BWV 841 Bodechtal [1.11]
Menuet 3 BWV 843 Bodechtal [1.55]
Partie diverse sopra il Corale ‘O Gott, du frommer Gott’ BWV 767 Schmahl [14.56]
Partita in A minor after BWV 1004; arranged by Mortensen; Hass [29.30]
Christopher Hogwood, clavichords
Recorded in Newnham College, Cambridge and Challow Park, Berkshire in 2002
METRONOME MET CD 1056 [71.54]

 

There are two observations to make straightaway about this fine CD. Firstly, it is extremely specialized and secondly, that should put absolutely no-one off from buying it.

It goes without saying that I need say nothing about the reputation of Christopher Hogwood. However I am going to say it anyway: Since 1967 he has been one of the major players in the presentation of baroque and early classical music. His name is a byword for excellence of playing and quality of supporting scholarship.

The raison d’être of the CD is interesting to ponder. It is the intention to encourage the use of the clavichord. So often this instrument has been presented ‘as the instrument of last resort rather than first choice’. However, based on written evidence, it is possible to prove that to Handel, Haydn and the young Beethoven, the clavichord was in fact the ‘normal’ keyboard for home practise. The harpsichord and the forte-piano were only resorted to when there was a need for volume, such as at a recital.

There are two further objectives of this recording, firstly to bring forward repertoire that is little known, whether in its original form or in some arrangement. And secondly to remind present-day audiences that many keyboard works were not really for public consumption: they were for the player himself and perhaps his pupils.

The instruments are important on this disc. There are distinct schools of thought when it comes to deciding to play on period instruments or replicas. Some enthusiasts will not consider a recording if it is not performed on an original instrument. Some will accept a reproduction instrument and others will just about tolerate a ‘modern’ design.

Christopher Hogwood opts for a mixed approach. None of the instruments used is contemporary with Sebastian Bach. The first clavichord was built by Johann Jacob Bodechtal in Nuremberg around 1790. The second is a replica, built in 1979 by Adlam Burnett. It is based on an original instrument from 1807 by Georg Friedrich Schmahl. And the final clavichord used is once again an original instrument from 1776 by Johann Albrecht Hass.

The programme notes are written by Christopher Hogwood himself and are a model for all such enterprises. They deliver a detailed discussion of the works presented. A further essay by Derek Adlam explains the background to the clavichord and the place it had in JSB’s music-making. One of the key facts to emerge is that we do not actually know what ‘make’ of clavichord the master owned. The number of contemporary instruments that survive from the period is quite small, and it is not possible to deduce what may have been a popular ‘buy’ with the composers of the day.

It may be worth noting that a clavichord is quite different from a harpsichord in its method of tone production. The latter instrument plucks the string with a quill. The clavichord is basically a small wooden case that is often placed on a table. It contains a sounding board and a set of strings, stretched from left to right above the key levers. The keys cause the strings to be struck by small pieces of metal called ‘tangents.’

This is what gives the clavichord its very special, enigmatic and almost elusive tone.

And what of the music? Well, there are two absolute masterpieces – the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor and the Partita in A minor. The former is a work that I have known for most of my ‘musical’ life and one of which I am very fond. This is the first time I have heard it played on the clavichord and I must confess that I love it. Of course that does not mean that it becomes my favorite version - that remains with Ralph Kirkpatrick on harpsichord and Angela Hewitt on the piano. But Hogwood’s version is a minor revelation and deserves our attention.

The Adagio in G is derived from a solo Violin Sonata in C (BWV 1005). The manuscript is not in JSB’s handwriting and Hogwood muses as to whether it fully represents the mind of the master. However it is an interesting work and is complete with a ‘stride bass’ motif that is quite before its time!

The Fugue in G minor is a transcription and expansion of a movement from Sebastian’s Violin Sonata (BWV539/2) that sits well in this version.

Most pianists have ploughed their way through a few pieces from the Clavier-büchlein für Wilhelm Friedmann Bach. I know these two ‘menuets’ and the Allemande from my own exertions – but it is always nice to hear them played this well! In fact the Allemande sent me straight down to the piano to try it out again. Hogwood brings a certain nuance to this ‘easy’ work that is definitive.

The Partita on ‘O Gott, du frommer Gott’ is a fascinating work. Most people that know this piece are probably aware of it in its organ incarnation. However, like so much Bach it shifts well to another medium. In fact I concentrated more on Hogwood’s playing of this piece than I have ever devoted to the playing of the organ original. The clavichord reveals subtleties that are not always obvious when played on a large four-manual organ in a cathedral with massive reverberation!

The Partita in A minor was originally for solo violin and was transcribed by Lars Ulrick Mortensen. This work is fantastic. There is something timeless about these five movements that seem to defy the clock. It is a long work – nearly half an hour but it is one of those mysterious pieces (like some Messiaen) that seem to be over in a trice but also last for ever!

All in all this is a great CD. I recommend it to all who like Bach and who especially love his keyboard music. Do not be put off by the cerebral nature of the programme. There is much here that will entrance listeners who are not ‘well acquainted’ with the clavier repertoire of the master.

And it will come as a revelation that such a diminutive keyboard instrument as the clavichord can express such power, emotion and expressiveness.

John France


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