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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 846-869 [123:29]
Cristiano Holtz (harpsichord)
rec. 30 September-5 October 2019, Sankt-Josef-Kirche, Glattfelden, Switzerland
RAMÉE RAM1912 [60:37 + 62:48]

Cristiano Holtz’s booklet notes for this admirable release go into some detail about the harpsichords Bach would have known, as well as writing on the subjects of tuning and registration. With regard to tuning there can be a tangy flavour to some of the more remote keys here, but nothing at all shocking or hair-shirt in effect. We can rest assured that this is a well-researched and carefully considered recording, and the instrument used is also of interest. This was built by Matthias Kramer after a 1728 harpsichord by Christian Zell, of which only the lid had survived. The size of this indicated a 16’ instrument, which is comparable with the so-called ‘Bach harpsichord’ in the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum.

The size and rich tone of the instrument recorded can lead to some deep bass registers and stately timings, such as the Fugue IV in C-sharp minor. I had sampled a few tracks from this recording before requesting a copy for review and anticipated measured tempi, but with this kind of registration it would be foolish to go much faster, the clarity of the lines already running second place to the instrument’s mighty timbre and the buzz of those long strings. Comparing timings with Christine Schornsheim’s Capriccio recording (review) do indeed reveal slower tempi, but not always by a vast margin. Holtz does go ‘in deep’ with some fugues, taking 5:53 over the Fugue VIII in D-sharp minor compared to Schornsheim’s 4:46, but even here the music doesn’t drag, the intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint spreading before us like Aedh’s Cloths of Heaven, over which Holtz treads respectfully, while also giving the mind time to assimilate all of those polyphonic complexities.

Preludes are given more flexibility than the fugues in terms of rubato, though Holtz is reasonably restrained in this regard, as he is with Bach’s ornamentations either written or implied. There are nice contrasts between pieces, the variety of effects and registrations used intelligently, such as with the muted strings in the left hand of the first section in the Prelude X in E minor, the second part suitably sparkling and driving forward in tempo ready for the drama of the fugue that follows. This is dramatic indeed, with the added thrum of the bass adding to the texture of the whole while leaving the leading upper voices well projected. Holtz can give us legato as well as keenly accurate rhythmic articulation, and I like the expressive languor of his Prelude XII in F major, as do I greatly appreciate the grungy ‘walking bass’ effect in the left hand of Prelude XXIV in B minor.

Cristiano Holtz was Gustav Leonhardt’s last official student, and he holds Leonhardt as a formative influence. You can find Leonhardt’s Well-Tempered Clavier on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and listening back to it you can hear where Holtz gets his sense of pace and timing - measured, controlled and accurate, but at the very least always interesting. The recording here has more sparkle and life than Leonhardt’s 1970s version, but this is to be expected. The grandeur in Holtz’s sound doesn’t go as far as the venerable Wanda Landowska (review), but there is certainly still a little of that old-school ‘play the harpsichord like an organ’ atmosphere in Cristiano Holtz’s performance. If you like this idea and seek a certain amount of spectacle in the harpsichord sound of your Well-Tempered Clavier; Book 1 then this recording will do nicely.

Dominy Clements

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