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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV903 (?1717-23) [12:09]
Aria variata “alla maniera italiana” in A minor, BWV989 (c. 1709) [14:18]
Fantasia in C minor, BWV906 (?c. 1738) [5:02]
Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV971 (1735) 13:06]
Overture after the French Manner in B minor, BWV831 (1735) [27:00]
Steven Devine (harpsichord)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, September 23-25, 2013

This is a fabulous recording of a strong, clear harpsichord, a Colin Booth from 2000 after a single-manual instrument by Johann Christof Fleischer, Hamburg, 1710. A is at 415Hz. Steven Devine is Professor of Early Keyboard at Trinity Laban (London); he has recorded a noted Goldberg Variations for Chandos (CHAN0780: see review). This disc includes some favourites, with Bach’s “other” set of variations (BWV989) and the expansive French Overture, BWV831.

The well-loved Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue begins with a nicely improvised feeling, although Ralph Kirkpatrick’s DG account (remembered fondly from gatefold LP days) holds more drama. Sadly, the Fugue comes across here as rather ploddy.

Devine has redistributed some chords of BWV 989 for this recording: this is the only designated variation work in Bach’s output work aside from the Goldbergs. It begins with a dignified aria. Clarity is of paramount importance: Variation III is a positive delight, while the rapid-fire Variation VIII is wonderfully crisply done.

The short Fantasia in C minor, BWV906 is a tremendous piece (there is also a 48-bar fugal fragment associated with this piece that is not included here). Devine finds lovely trills interspersed between the dramatic descending minor-mode gestures; it acts as a perfect aperitif to the famous Italian Concerto. Sadly, the first movement of the Italian Concerto lacks a bit of life. Some agogic hesitations which threaten to interrupt the rhythmic flow, too. Those difficult-to-bring-off accompaniments to the central panel sound a little ploddy; the right hand has the right idea, with plenty of fantasy. The most successful movement is the bright, lively finale, but this performance’s inability to come fully to life came as something of a surprise.

The Overture after the French Manner begins with what is often referred to as Bach’s longest single keyboard movement (it comes in here at 7:46). The performance here is one of immense dignity; the play of later movements is fully honoured, though (try the Gavottes I & II). There is energy aplenty to the Passepieds, while decorations in the Bourées are a constant source of delight. The piece does not end with a Gigue; that’s actually the penultimate movement, itself dignified as if the upwardly-rising gestures are borrowed from the “Ouverture”. The finale is actually a jaunty “Echo”, deliciously rendered here.

The order of the pieces in the notes and on the disc are different, but, that aside, Devine provides highly informed background to the programme. The performances are not entirely consistent but there is enough here to provide plenty of enjoyment.

Colin Clarke

Previous review: Dominy Clements



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