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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [78:19]
Concerto in the Italian Style BWV 971 (1735) [12:52]
Toccata in D major BWV 912 [10:50]
Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother BWV 992 (1704) [11:55]
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV 903 (1717/23) [12:32]
Six Little Preludes BWV 933-038 (1717) [2:35]
Toccata in E minor BWV 914 [8:17]
Fantasia in C minor BWV 906 [5:31]
Richard Lester (harpsichord)
Recording dates and location not given.
NIMBUS RECORDS NI5946/7 [78:19 + 74:40]

This is the first volume of a projected complete edition of J. S. Bach’s keyboard works with a planned release schedule of one double-CD release from now until 2023, making seven volumes in all. This recording, dedicated by Richard Lester to his teacher George Malcolm (1917-1997), makes a fine marker for such an anniversary.

With two well-filled discs as an opener, this seems like an attractive prospect, and we are immediately treated to what has become one of Bach's best known keyboard works, the Goldberg Variations. Richard Lester outlines the tale in Johann Nikolaus Forkel's biography of J. S. Bach, in which "the aforementioned Goldberg" played this piece to help Count von Keyserlingk's insomnia, adding an anecdote that his playing had a similar effect on his wife's sister while on a visit. Unusually linked to the opening Aria on track one, Variation I is certainly slower than many versions you may have heard before, as are Variations 5 and 23 for instance, but proportion over the entirety of the cycle is more the point with the Goldberg Variations. While Lester's reading is scholarly, or measured and accurate rather than audaciously individual, my appreciation for his interpretation grew constantly over the first proper run-through and has remained respectfully admiring on subsequent hearings. There is playfulness here, but this is to be found in the inner life of these pieces rather than in their speed—avoiding the superficial virtuosity of velocity. Linking the first variation to the Aria ensures that the number of each subsequent variation corresponds to its track number on the CD, so there is method in this approach.

Richard Lester's playing here has a pleasant flow, as well as plenty of sprightly contrast where required. As mentioned, extremes of tempo are not a feature here, though pieces such as Variation 15, the mournful Variation 21 and the great Variation 25 are given their expressive due. Some harmonic points are emphasised with perhaps a slightly heavy rhythmic rubato here and there, but again the proportions of each variation fit seamlessly into a clear vision of the whole. There is certainly no attempt at over-reverential slowness in these cases; logical structure and flow are maintained throughout.

The instrument used for most of this recording is a fine-sounding double-manual harpsichord built by Colin Booth in 2011, based on a single manual example by a Hamburg maker Johann Christoph Fleischer, dated 1710. This has plenty of vibrancy and depth of tone. While the recording is fairly close, there is a nice stereo spread to the sound and the detail is not wearing on the ears.

CD 2 begins with an impressive account of the Italian Concerto, again with Lester's feel of careful preparation and satisfactory musicianship, but also with plenty of zip in the final Presto. The same goes for the Toccata in D minor. The improvisatory feel of the opening is perhaps a little cursory, but with plenty of drive and joyful energy. The Toccata in E minor is taken with a touch more reserve, those helter-skelter notes restrained by their minor key expressiveness.

The Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother is thought to be a tribute to Johann Jakob, Johann Sebastian's elder brother who had taken up a post at the royal court in Sweden. This sequence of six movements has a charming narrative content that suits Richard Lester's thoughtful playing very well indeed, from tragic lamentation to the final Posthorn fugue. You can imagine the Bach musical family laughing heartily and clapping shoulders after such a journey.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor has a dramatic content of an entirely different sort. Lester has some fine flourishes and expressive gestures, but does not over-egg the intensity of this particular narrative. The Fantasia is a recitative for keyboard rather than voice, and this is a version in which every "word" is allowed clarity and a sense of intent. The following Fugue is a rich musical feast for the ear.

The Little Preludes are delightful instructional pieces that are full of fun. The final Fantasia in C minor is the perfect close to this substantial programme, with its deceptive intricacies larded with cross-hands high jinx and a general air of vivacious virtuosity.

As previously suggested, this Bach keyboard recording project looks more than being merely promising. This first volume stands at the vanguard of something that will stand proudly alongside other such huge projects by Richard Lester, including the entire Scarlatti sonatas (review), Frescobaldi (review) and numerous others. Lester's numerous followers will need little persuading to acquire this Bach programme, and they will surely not be disappointed. If you seek a marginally wilder ride in pieces such as the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, then you might prefer something like Steven Devine on the Chandos label (review). I have a feeling, however, that many fans of Bach played on the harpsichord will have a soft spot for Richard Lester's recordings, and I am happy to be counted amongst their ranks.

Dominy Clements


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