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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
JS Bach in the Italian style
Toccata in D (BWV 912) [12:03]
Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo in B flat (BWV 992) [14:08]
Fantasia in a minor (BWV 904,1) [4:10]
Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971) [11:00]
Fugue in a minor (BWV 904,2) [7:10]
Goldberg Variations (BWV 988):Aria [5:09]
Concerto for 2 harpsichords in C (BWV 1061a)* [18:24]
James Tibbles, Jenny Thomas* (harpsichord)
rec. February and July 2008, Music Theatre, School of Music, University of Auckland, New Zealand. DDD
ATOLL ACD509 [75:25]

Sometimes it's not easy to find the right title for a disc. "JS Bach in the Italian style" suggests a programme with music which Bach composed under the influence of the Italian music he became acquainted with early in his career. That is not quite the case, though. James Tibbles admits in his liner-notes that "not all the works I've chosen to perform actually display elements of Italian style". In Bach's time the 'Italian style' was that of concertos by the likes of Vivaldi, Albinoni and Marcello - pieces Bach arranged for harpsichord and for organ. The programme Tibbles has chosen has been largely inspired by the harpsichord he plays: a copy of an instrument by Christian Zell from 1728.

The disc opens with one of Bach's toccatas. The toccata is of Italian origin, but of a much older date; its roots are in the late 16th century. It found its way to North Germany where it became a key element in the keyboard style which was developed there. Bach knew it especially through the music of Buxtehude, one of the last representatives of the North German organ school. Bach's toccatas can be connected only indirectly to the 'Italian style'. Toccatas have improvisatory traits, and that is also the case with the seven toccatas which Bach composed for the harpsichord. Some scholars believe that they may have been intended for the organ but today they are almost exclusively played on the harpsichord. Tibbles plays the Toccata in D nicely, but I find the tempi of the fast movements too slow. Just to compare: Tibbles needs 12 minutes, Bob van Asperen (EMI) takes less than 11 minutes.

The Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo isn't a piece in Italian style either, despite its title. It is a musical description of what happens when a 'beloved brother' leaves and of the feelings his departure raises. Whether that brother was related to Bach is a matter of debate. Imitations like this were common in the 17th century, for instance in the Biblical Sonatas by Kuhnau and in many works for violin from the German-Austrian violin school (Walther, Biber). However, in Bach's oeuvre they are very rare. The various movements have titles which indicate what they aim to express. The first couple of movements are a bit disappointing, and Tibbles could have made more of them. Once again his tempi are quite slow: Cécile Mansuy, for instance (review) needs only 10:30.

The Fantasia and the Fugue in a minor have been split here, because it is unlikely they were conceived as a unity. They are nicely played, but far too slow, especially the fugue. As we have seen already, this is a general feature of Tibbles' interpretations, as the Aria from the Goldberg variations shows once again. The same is the case with the Italian Concerto which is written after the model of the Italian concertos by the likes of Vivaldi. The two manuals can be used to make a contrast between solo and tutti. The outer movements are alright, but the andante is again too slow, and played as if it were an adagio.

The Italian style also comes to the fore in the last piece in the programme, the Concerto for two harpsichords in C. It exists in two different versions, with and without strings. The former is most often played, and it is nice to hear it without strings, especially as the repertoire for two harpsichords is rather limited. It is by far the best part of this disc. James Tibbles and Jenny Thomas deliver an energetic performance. The recording is just right: the two harpsichords have not been split too radically left and right.

On balance this is a bit of a mixed package. About half of the programme comprises pieces which are very well-known and available in many recordings. The Capriccio belongs to the lesser-known items, but the performance is a bit disappointing. The rather slow tempi are one of the major minuses of this disc. If I return to this disc it will be because of the Concerto in C which has not been recorded all that often.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Gavin Dixon