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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, BWV 846-869 [115:09]
Borbála Dobozy (harpsichord)
rec. June 2018, Phoenix Studio, Diósd, Hungary

I’m always tempted by new recordings of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and when I saw that Borbála Dobozy had been a student of Zuzana Růžičková that removed any doubts I might have had in taking on both this and her Book II, which will be reviewed separately. Růžičková’s playing was sublimely musical but also unfussy, the message of the composer shining through every time, whether it be Bach, Couperin or anyone else.

Dobozy is comparable to Růžičková in being flexible in the preludes while not torturing the music with unnecessary rubato. Her tempi are well-considered and uncontroversial, certainly not dipping into artificial slowness but also never sounding rushed. The instrument used is a fine sounding reproduction of a Parisian harpsichord from 1733, and the recording balance is colourful and detailed but with enough space around the sound for lengthy listening enjoyment. Solo harpsichord can be a bit jangly but this is by no means the case here, and there is a mild acoustic halo to which, if it is given a bit of help by the engineer, I have no objection. Looking at some pictures online the studio looks big enough to take care of itself in this regard.

For anyone interested the tuning system used here is Kirnberger III, which means that some keys will sound more fruity than others, but does relate to the music in that Johann Kirnberger was a student of J.S. Bach and an enthusiastic proponent of his teacher’s music and methods.

Borbála Dobozy brings plenty of life to Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. She doesn’t at first appear to go in for much in the way of extreme shifts in register, though moments of contrast such as the muted strings in the Prelude in D minor are welcome. This is however an instrument whose changes of character are quite subtle, so as the set progresses your ears become tuned to Dobozy’s choices. I was intrigued to hear where there might be differences here to Christine Schornsheim’s recording on the Capriccio label (review). Schornsheim’s training includes time with Gustav Leonhardt, but whatever the lineage the Ruckers instrument she uses is a touch more lush sounding, suiting her greater tendency to pull Bach’s rhythms around. This is by no means an extreme or annoying trait, but having listened to Dobozy for a while it stands out straight away. Which approach you prefer will be a personal one. Having lived with Dobozy’s recording I suppose the only thing I miss just a little is the joie de vivre I hear in Trevor Pinnock’s recent Deutsche Grammophon recording, for instance in something like the Prelude in F-sharp minor, which could have been just a bit more animated from Dobozy. These are subtle value judgements, and by no means any reason not to enjoy and admire this recording for all of its many fine qualities. I have yet to find a ‘perfect’ Well-Tempered Clavier and so there are always going to be moments when you want a bit more of this or that. As a general impression of the temperature of this performance, Johann Sebastian Bach fathered 20 children as far as we know, but with this recording you might think he only had 17.

This release comes in a nice gatefold card sleeve with a well designed booklet with booklet notes in English and Hungarian. CD timings in the booklet are correct but are all over the place on the back cover, which is a miniscule criticism of an otherwise superbly produced package. Book II is also available on BMC CD 293 and the two recordings are designed as a pair, though a different instrument is used for the second set so I’m intrigued to hear how that sounds. If you are looking for a very well produced harpsichord version of Bach’s WTC Book I without annoying mannerisms then Borbála Dobozy’s recording deserves very serious consideration indeed.

Dominy Clements

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