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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903 [12:09]
Aria variata ‘alla maniera italiana’, BWV 989 [14:38]
Fantasia, BWV 906 [5:02]
Concerto nach italiänischem Gusto, BWV 971 [13:06]
Overtüre nach französischer Art, BWV 831 [27:00]
Steven Devine (harpsichord)
rec. 23-25 September 2013, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk.

After his top-notch Goldberg Variations (see review) I have been keeping an eye out for new things from Steven Devine. In this substantial collection of Bach’s keyboard works he returns to Potton Hall with the same Colin Booth-made instrument, so expectations are high.
Devine represents a ‘school’ of harpsichord playing which places a great deal of value on expressive playing, so you can expect plenty of the kind of rubato which not so long ago might have been considered Romantic tinkering with Baroque ideals. I was taught that, by and large, you ‘turned on the machine’ and kept a pretty strict rhythmic pulse from beginning to end of a piece by Bach, and Steven Devine is certainly accurate in terms of tempo. Within the ‘beat’ however there is plenty of elasticity in, for instance, the Fugue which concludes BWV 903. An opposite pole to this might be Wanda Landowska, whose strict rhythm is maintained throughout (see review). There something to be said for either approach, but the value in Steven Devine’s playing is that it sounds entirely natural, each expressive point balanced by a kind of symmetry; the harmonic narrative posing questions and delivering answers. The preceding Fantasia is of course and entirely different proposition, and Devine does a marvellous job of stretching and postponing lines ever so subtly, so that we are kept enthralled with anticipation.
The Aria variata ‘alla maniera italiana’ is the smaller relative of the Goldberg Variations, these being the only two works he wrote in this form. One would have expected keyboard players of Bach’s time to flex their virtuosity in performance, extemporising on all kinds of material at the drop of a hat. Actually writing these down probably seemed fairly pointless to the great performer, though this is only my pet theory. BWV 989 has little of the magic of the Goldbergs, but gathers quite a bit of momentum by the last few variations and is decent enough music though too conventional to count as a real favourite.
Bach’s keyboard music is recorded more often these days on the piano, so while you will find all of this music somewhere else on harpsichord it’s tricky to find CDs which compete more or less directly with this programme. In any case this is hard to beat in terms of sonics and performance. The joyous Fantasia BWV 906 acts as a kind of axis around which the larger pieces revolve, and with its unusual hand-crossing techniques this is something of a novelty amongst Bach’s keyboard oeuvre.
Devine’s Concerto nach italiänischem Gusto, BWV 971 doesn’t open with quite the bounce that some performances have, but his playing keeps a grounded intensity in the notes which lends the music more substance than sprightliness, though without sounding at all heavy. The central Andante has an ideal combination of spare simplicity of expression and sophisticated ornament, Devine on this occasion leaving aside rubato plasticity for the most part, finding a central thread which pushes ever onwards. The final Presto is suitably spectacular, the performer needing do little other than let the music flow and speak for itself, the colour contrasts in the instrument and Devine’s refinement of touch and sustain giving this movement a resonant power which is irresistible.
The Overtüre nach französischer Art, BWV 831 takes pride of place as the close to this programme, its opening claimed as Bach’s “longest single keyboard movement” by Christopher Devine in his booklet notes. Tempo might also play a role in this equation, but Devine doesn’t linger in his animated reading of the Overture, undercutting the more stately Gustav Leonhardt by over half a minute. I like Leonhardt’s Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recordings and his BWV 831 is a highlight of his invaluable ‘Plays Bach’ box set, now under the Sony Classical umbrella. He manages to imbue each movement with an individual emotional character which is stronger than most. Devine’s closer recorded sound lends a heightened sense of colour and animation to the piece and he delivers a more enhanced sense of interconnectedness to the suite as a whole: more as a through-composed whole than a set of character pieces. He takes a swift tempo for the Passepied, but this contrasts perfectly with a sensitively delivered Sarabande, his two-manual instrument capable of an effective Écho for the finale.
Beyond any shadow of doubt, if you like your Bach on harpsichord this is a disc you simply must have on your wish-list. Steven Devine is his own man when it comes to performance, but his playing avoids artificiality while introducing plenty of individual character. The recording is detailed and crisp without being over-direct and fatiguing, and Chandos’s presentation is beyond reproach.
Dominy Clements