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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partitas BWV 825-830 (Clavier-Übung I) (1726-1730)
Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV825 [20:23]
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV826 [19:29]
Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV827 [19:29]
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV828 [25:32]
Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV829 [21:38]
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV830 [26:39]
Menno van Delft (clavichord)
rec. 2016, Hatchlands Park, UK RESONUS CLASSICS RES10212 [59:21 + 73:49]
In the booklet accompanying this issue, the keyboard player Manno van Delft justifies the choice of a 1784 Hoffmann clavichord (one of only a pair of Hoffmann’s instruments that still exist) for the performance of one of J S Bach’s most emblematic keyboard collections as follows: “With its subtle dynamic shading and inherent flexibility – the player is in touch with the string for as long as a note lasts – the clavichord enables a most immediate and intimate interaction with the fabric of the music, responding to the finest nuances of its weave.” He goes on to describe the clavichord as “…. a modest instrument of study and domestic entertainment….”. In fact after a brief discussion of the genesis of the Clavier-Übung I, much of his fascinating essay is devoted to unravelling evidence that supports the hypothesis that the clavichord was in fact Bach’s favourite keyboard instrument. Much of this is drawn from J N Forkel’s early (1802) biography of the master which in turn cites that author’s correspondence with Bach’s eldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel which reinforces the claim.
I open my review with these thoughts in order to provide a caveat to the general listener. While these discs may be of uncommon interest to lovers of rare and arcane instruments I would argue that for the majority of enthusiasts both the sound of this instrument and the recording itself may provide something other than listening ‘pleasure’. Let me say at the outset that van Delft’s playing seems perfectly fine, under the circumstances; he clearly has these works under his skin and plays them with as much expressiveness as the instrument allows and a sureness of touch – on this clavichord the latter quality is a sine qua non. The pictures of it presented in the booklet (see it here) leave one in little doubt as to the challenges faced by the player.
It’s a brave choice and while those interested in antique instruments may indeed lap this kind of thing up it’s really not something that I think is designed with the casual listener in mind. I started my listening to these discs at 2.30 in the morning when the rest of the family were fast asleep and I had to find something more intimate to review out of consideration for them. At low levels the recording proved almost inaudible and oddly distorted – almost as though I was listening through earmuffs – I heard the first two minor key Partitas (Nos 2 and 3) in this way before thinking better of it and deciding to wait until daytime to try again. When the moment came to turn up the volume I’m afraid it became clear that the muffled impression persisted. And subsequently worsened. It seems that this is certainly down to the instrument. There are also times when it sounds, often (but not exclusively) in its middle and especially upper ranges as if there is a strange, ‘scratchy’ quality to the sonics. It comes and goes across both discs, and forgive my ignorance but I really cannot establish whether this is to do with the action (which tends not unexpectedly to be noisy in any case), the recording, or even the ambience. My suspicion (given the excellence of every Resonus disc which has thus far come my way) is that this is also something to do with this particular clavichord. Inevitably with works that one knows and loves this extraneous noise, whatever its source, is going to detract from the listening experience. It’s the very unpredictability of this effect which I found to be particularly jarring.
Notwithstanding Van Delft’s perfectly reasonable remarks about the clavichord’s singular ability to convey the nuances of the music I’m afraid these two discs do not back them up. In fact they provided little more than a series of insuperable obstacles for this reviewer’s ears and sensibilities. Lazy as it will doubtless seem to some, I have found it well-nigh impossible to comment on ‘interpretation’ under these circumstances – throughout all six Partitas I’m afraid that the over-riding impression occurring to this reviewer is that the major challenge facing van Delft was to somehow safely unpackage the notes Bach wrote down from a rather mean-spirited and unyielding instrument. If indeed Bach did indeed have a preference for this particular kind of keyboard one wonders if it would have persisted had he lived to hear these wonderful works played on Pinnock’s or Koopman’s harpsichords or indeed Levit’s or even Gould’s piano. Ultimately then perhaps these discs, for all the sincerity and integrity behind their provenance, are really only recommendable to clavichord specialists.