Saturday, May 29, 2021

Bach and the harpsichord

Every year sees the release of new recordings of keyboard music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The question is justified, whether any of them have something to offer that is different from what is already on the market. In the case of the French Suites, a new recording of which has been released by Brilliant Classics, that question is easy to answer. Wolfgang Rübsam [1] performs them on the lute-harpsichord, and although this instrument may have been used for these suites before, such an approach to these well-known pieces is anything but common. The instrument's sound is clearly different from that of the common harpsichord. One does not need to worry about the 'authenticity' of the use of a lute-harpsichord: it is documented that Bach owned two such instruments. It has a marked influence on Rübsam's interpretation, which I would define as 'poetic'. These suites are written in the French style, and bear the traces of the style brisé on 17th-century French lute music. On the lute-harpsichord these traces come off particularly well, and Rübsam emphasizes them by arpeggiating most of the chords. In addition, he has opted for rather quiet tempi, which explains why he needs two discs, whereas in most other performances one disc suffices. This also created some space for two additional works, the Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998) and the Suite in e minor (BWV 996). What gave me considerable problems is the lack of synchronization of the two hands. This is part of historical performance practice of baroque keyboard music, but it is especially noticeable here, because on the lute-harpsichord the sound dissolves more quickly than on the common harpsichord. I found it hard to listen to these performances with my headphones, as I usually do with review discs. A little more distance to the instrument does make a difference, and listening through speakers was certainly helpful. Rübsam also makes extensive use of rubato, and that may not be to everyone's liking too. I had to get used to this recording, but after a while I somehow warmed to it, and in the end, I would not want to miss it, especially because of the lovely sound of the lute-harpsichord and the different perspective it offers.

The second disc has more to offer than just works by Bach. Under the title 'Little Books', Francesco Corti [2] has put together a programme of pieces that can be found in the various collections that circulated within the Bach family. These include the Andreas Bach Book, the Möller manuscript and the two Klavierbüchlein, for Wilhelm Friedemann and Anna Magdalena Bach respectively. The first two contain mainly pieces that Bach studied in his youth and some early works from his own pen. The latter two include pieces that were either used for teaching or for edification, and for music making in the Bach household. The result is a picture of a composer who studied music of earlier generations to hone his skills, and who, in his later years, had an open ear for the output of colleagues, be it from Germany (Telemann) or elsewhere (Couperin). In his programming Corti tries to link some pieces together, for instance the fourth French Suite (BWV 815) - preceded by the Prelude BWV 815a - and a piece by Couperin, thus emphasizing French influence in Bach's oeuvre. Corti also plays the fourth Biblical Sonata by Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor in Leipzig. His brother Johann Christoph included these sonatas in the Andreas Bach Book, and they undoubtedly inspired Bach to write the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo, which Corti also included. The transcription of an orchestral suite by Telemann is also interesting. Unfortunately, we only get some of its movements; the other are only available as digital downloads. Corti is a brilliant harpsichordist who convincingly demonstrates his skills here. However, his choice of tempi is a bit undifferentiated. In the Capriccio, the Aria di Postiglione has the tempo indication allegro poco, but Corti seems to have overlooked the poco. His playing does not breathe enough, and often I wished for some relaxation. In Georg Böhm's Prelude, Fugue and Postlude, he seems to want to imitate the organ. However, it is not an organ piece, but a keyboard work that can be played either on the organ or on a strung keyboard. The sound here is a little too dense and too massive. Telemann's suite comes off best.

The Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo is also part of the programme that Luca Oberti [3] recorded under the title 'An Italian Journey'. One may question its inclusion, because, as I have already noted, this piece is modelled after Kuhnau's Biblical Sonatas. The connection with Italy is rather indirect. Incidentally, Oberti is more convincing than Corti in this work, mainly because of his more appropriate tempi. The other works can certainly be described as 'Italian', such as the two transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi (BWV 972) and Alessandro Marcello (BWV 974) respectively. In both concertos, Oberti plays the left hand staccato in the slow movements, which is not required in the score and does not sound very nice either. The middle movement of the Concerto BWV 974 is played rather awkwardly, and the lyricism of this beautiful movement does not come off. The other pieces are much better: the Fantasy and Fugue BWV 904, the Aria variata alla maniera italiana and the Italian Concerto. Oberti plays a copy of a Taskin harpsichord, which might not be the most logical choice. Overall, I have mixed feelings about this recording. There are quite some beautiful moments, but also some things that are disappointing or even annoying.

The programme that Tilman Skowroneck [4] put together, looks pretty conventional. It opens with the sixth English Suite, continues with Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998), and ends with a harpsichord transcription of the Partita in g minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin. It is mainly the latter piece which makes this CD interesting. Such transcriptions are not uncommon, but here we are dealing with a version made by Gustav Leonhardt. During his career he often played transcriptions of pieces that Bach composed for other instruments. In 2017 his former student, Siebe Henstra, published a collection of such transcriptions. The version played here is taken from this edition, with one exception. In the case of the Ciaccona, Skowroneck systematically compared several recordings of recitals. "The version of the Ciaccona presented here is an accumulation of the outcomes of these comparisons". The printed transcriptions only give an impression of the versions that Leonhardt has played over the years. He obviously viewed the transcription practice as a work in progress. It is not surprising that Skowroneck is strongly influenced by Leonhardt, because his development and career are closely linked to this pioneer of historical performance practice. He was one of his students and his father, the harpsichord maker Martin Skowroneck, worked closely with Leonhardt and built harpsichords for him. Tilman Skowroneck himself writes that his views are not identical with those of Leonhardt, but have not fundamentally departed from them. That is obvious in this recording, and there is nothing wrong with that, especially since Leonhardt is no longer with us. Rhythmic precision and subtle agogic are among the characteristics of his playing. The partita is the most interesting piece on this CD and is given an incisive performance. Lovers of Bach's harpsichord works should not hesitate to add this CD to their collection.

I don't see any pressing reasons for this in case of the next disc. It seems that the American harpsichordist Jory Vinikour [5] almost only performs in his own country and because of that he is probably not that well-known elsewhere. His programme is not original: the Italian Concerto, the Overture in the French Style and the Chromatic fantasy and fugue are some of Bach's best-known harpsichord works. The last piece, Prelude and fugue BWV 894, is a little less familiar. It belongs among a category of works in Bach's oeuvre that are not badly represented on CD, but are not really well-known either. A special feature - and this is where Vinikour stands out from the competition - is that the andante from the Sonata BWV 964 is inserted between the prelude and fugue. This sonata is Bach's own transcription of his Sonata in a minor (BWV 2003) for solo violin. However, does that really make sense? This sonata is available in several recordings, and I do not see why this one movement should be isolated from its original context. Be that as it may, Vinikour is a very good harpsichordist who delivers fine performances of the selected pieces. That said, I often longed for a more breathing style of playing.

Finally, I return to Wolfgang Rübsam [6]. He not only recorded the French suites on the lute-harpsichord, but a few years earlier also the Goldberg Variations for Naxos. Given the overwhelming number of recordings of this work available, it is not easy to offer something different. Like in his recording of the French Suites, Rübsam does so here by his choice of instrument, but also by his interpretation. What I noted with regard to his recording of the French Suites also goes for his performance of the Goldberg Variations. There is little differentiation in tempo, and overall his tempi are rather slow. Variation No. 25, taking almost 8 minutes, is probably the slowest I've ever heard. Since Rübsam needs only one disc, you may understand that he is rather economical in his repeats. Personally, I find the tempi problematic, but the bigger problem is the extreme lack of synchronization between the two hands. Every now and then they seem to move completely independently of one another. In case of the French Suites, where this is less extreme, the use of speakers instead of headphones partly solved the problem, but that does not make a substantial difference here. To be honest, I find it unbearable, especially in combination with the slow tempi, the extensive rubato and the many ornaments, as well as the frequent arpeggiation of chords. Whereas, after some time, I was able to get used to the French Suites and even came to appreciate them, I fail to like this interpretation of the Goldberg Variations. One is well advised to listen to some tracks on the internet before deciding to buy this CD.

[1] French Suites (BWV 812-817)
Wolfgang Rüsam, lute-harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96227 (© 2020) details

[2] "Little Books"
Francesco Corti, harpsichord
Arcana A480 (© 2020) details

[3] "An Italian Journey"
Luca Oberti, harpsichord
Arcana A443 (© 2018) details

[4] Harpsichord works
Tilman Skowroneck, harpsichord
TYXart TXA19133 (© 2020) details

[5] "Harpsichord Works"
Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
Sono Luminus DSL-92239 (© 2020) details

[6] Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)
Wolfgang Rübsam, lute-harpsichord
Naxos 8.573921 (© 2018) details

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