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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata in D major, BWV 912 (c.1707) [13:20]
English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807 (c.1714) [24:13]
Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825 (1726) [21:37]
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 (c.1717) [16:06]
Jill Crossland (piano)
rec. 2 March 2003, The Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk, UK
DIVERSIONS DDV24169 [75:18]

I have a clear position on Bach’s keyboard music: I like it played on the pianoforte rather than the harpsichord or other baroque instruments. So, these four of Bach’s great works came as a particular pleasure to me. The liner notes define the ethos of this recording: ‘The four works on this disc exemplify the two sides of Bach’s compositional journey – a continual experimentation, aggregation and integration of different European styles, and the evolution of an entirely personal synthesis.’

The earliest piece here is the Toccata in D major, BWV 912, probably written around 1707. It is the third of six Toccatas that have been arbitrarily collected as a group. The main characteristics are virtuosity and variety between the several sections of each work. The present piece has four segments, a structure championed by Dietrich Buxtehude. After an improvisatory presto, replete with scales and chords, there is a carefree allegro with a good dialogue between the treble and bass parts. The heart of the Toccata is the adagio in three parts: a recitative with ad-lib tremolo chords, a darkly-hued fugue, and an improvisatory bridge passage leading to the final fugue, which is really an Italian gigue. The latter is in an unusual, but happy-go-lucky, 6/16 time. The Toccata concludes with lightly played arpeggios and a short but loud adagio. The pianist gives us a skilful realisation of these four widely contrasting sections.

The English Suites have little to do with England; the nickname was applied sometime after 1750. They may have been dedicated to an English nobleman; or maybe they bear some resemblance to the keyboard music of Charles Dieupart (after 1667-1740), a French composer based in London. Unlike the French Suites, the English begin with a Prelude and then explore a variety of dance movements. The opening Prelude in the A minor Suite BWV 807 is vibrant and full of energy, with a complex extended three-part form. The Sarabande is in two sections, with its own set of variations, or at least a highly ornamented version of the first. The final Giga nods towards a Tarantella. Other movements include a vivid Bourrée in two segments: an allegro and a musette. The Allemande and Courante are elegant and sophisticated in mood. Jill Crossland gives the entire Suite a thoughtful performance.

The word “Partita” means a Suite – at least in the context of Bach’s works – but there is nothing conventional about Partita No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825. Peter Williams wrote that Bach was ‘determined to conjure up his own dance types, even when giving them Italian names or hinting at German organ music’. The liner notes state that the Partitas were a response to Handel’s Eight Great Suites, published in 1720. It is thought that Bach had seen these by 1722, and had completed this Partita some four years later. The work begins with a gentle Praeludium, which has been compared to a three-part invention. Parry describes the Allemande as ‘graceful and fluent’ and presenting an ‘evanescent delicacy’. This is followed by a slightly less urbane Courante with a definite sense of urgency. It has been suggested that Bach wrote the Partita to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Saxony-Anhalt’s first-born child. Certainly, the stately Sarabande balances dignity with a florid melody and detailed ornamentation. It is sheer perfection. This is followed by Minuets 1 and 2, charming and winning little pieces: they provide light-hearted contrast to the preceding Sarabande. The concluding Giga always brings the house down. Domenico Scarlatti may be alluded to here, with the dynamic hand crossing. It is delicately and sensitively performed in this recording.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, is my favourite Bach keyboard composition. It is believed to have been written during the composer’s Coethen period (1717-1723), when he was Kapellmeister and director of Prince Leopold’s chamber music. The manuscript has not survived, so a date is hard to guess. Perhaps between 1717 and 1720? The spirit of the work is revealed in a ‘whirl of notes and stirring harmonies’. Undoubtedly, this music is emotionally stormy. Critics have suggested that in the involved chromatic writing Bach is pushing the boundaries of the tempered system of musical notation. The soloist requires a strong technique, encompassing complex rhythms, detailed ornamentation and incisive scalar and arpeggiated figurations. The fugue, equally demanding, develops from a conventional opening into a dramatic fantasy. The work is a balance of improvisatory mood with a large-scale formal structure. All this stylish drama and virtuosity is captured in Jill Crossland’s thoughtful and exacting recital. (The title ‘Chromatic’ was not given by Bach. It is a nickname applied by subsequent performers.)

Jill Crossland has made several recordings, including music by Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Mozart and Beethoven, for the Divine Art and Diversions labels. She also recorded the Goldberg Variations for Warner Classics, and the complete Well-tempered Clavier for Signum Classics. I have not heard those recordings.

I found Ying Chang’s liner notes excellent. They provide all the information required to appreciate this wonderful music. The cover is an enigmatic photo of a (the?) piano with a kitten on (nearly) the keys.

The performance of these four Bach keyboard works is satisfying and commanding. It should be noted that the music was recorded nearly 18 years ago, but that is not an issue as far as the quality of the playing or recording.

John France

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