The Keyboard Music of Bach

Discussion in 'Classical Music' started by Rodrigo de Sá, Jun 19, 2003.

  1. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Bach's Well Tempered Clavier
    T H E W E L L T E M P E R E D C L A V I E R

    INTRODUCTORY NOTE, perhaps rather useless, as it is too complex for the non initiated and too simple for the initiated, and to be unremorsefully skipped.

    The name itself is rather strange. I remember a young boy referring to it as the 'tempered clavier' - I think he though it wasn't as corny.

    But to 'temperate' a clavier means to tune it. Now the old system of tuning was very different from the modern one. I a modern piano, if you play c sharp or d flat it is the same note. But theoretically they are different notes: the c sharp is lower than the d flat.

    Old instrument builders and tuners therefore had to chose, for each accidental (the black notes) if it was a lower note's sharp or the upper note's flat.

    Usually one chose the arrangements which allowed playing d minor, g minor and c minor, f major, g major and d major. Which means you have c sharp, e flat, f sharp, a flat and b flat.

    Now that implies that you cannot play a C major tune in c sharp major, because it would be helplessly out of tune: the relationships between the notes (all black notes) would be different than the one found in the original c major: some notes would be too flat and some too sharp. As a matter of fact, most 'remote' keys cannot be used at all, as they sound completely out of tune.

    That prevented the use of modulation, that is, the possibility of changing keys within the same piece.

    Now in the modern tuning the interval between c and c sharp is exactly the same as between any other half tone. So you can change keys freely.

    But that was not the case in Bach's time. Because he wished to be capable of playing in any key he made the point that a correctly tuned keyboard should be able to play in any key. That is, therefore, the reason of the title: a Weel Tuned Keyboard.

    The structure of the WTC is, itself, revealing: there is a prelude and fugue in every possible key (of course, not the enharmonic ones).



    THE WTC

    Actually, there are two WTC: the 1st book and the second one. They were composed at different times and stylistically are quite different. The first one is, by far, the more approachable one.

    What is important to notice is that every key had a 'hidden' significance. For instance, c major was though of as peaceful, g major boisterously joyful, f minor very tragic, d minor deep, d major shiny and bright and so on.

    Therefore it is important to understand that all the preludes and fugues are supposed to convey an emotional message. In the preludes that is rather easily done: they are essentially free pieces of music, and the composer writes as he wishes. With the fugues it is rather different, because fugue writing is a very exact and rigorous exercise. But, and that is one of Bach's strange capabilities, he manages to make powerfully moving fugues. As a matter of fact, in a sense, the fugues of the WTC are more powerfully moving than the preludes.

    The second book is much more abstract. It is also more modern. The preludes are more modern (more da capi, for instance, less rhapsodical) and the fugues are rather more abstract and contrapuntally complex; some of them are unbelievable beautiful.

    THE VERSIONS

    There are so many versions it is quite impossible to mention them all. As far as I know, there are harpsichord versions; clavichord versions; piano versions; and organ versions.

    The word 'Klavier' just means keyboard. But as they are manualiter pieces (that is, there is no pedal part, only the hands are supposed to play), the likely attribution is to the harpsichord, the standard Klavier in Bach's day. Also, there are pieces which were clearly written for the harpsichord: the ringing spread chords don't work in the organ and only partially in the piano. The clavichord was thought as a study instrument (it is diabolically difficult to play), not a serious one.

    The modern Grand piano is claimed to be a 'better' instrument than the harpsichord, because it allows dynamic gradations. That is true, but it is nothing as transparent as good harpsichord tune, an important aspect in contrapuntal music.

    I'll comment on the following. Kirkpatrick (Archiv), Walcha I (EMI), Walcha II (Archiv/DGG), Leonhardt (DHM), Gilbert (Archiv), Moroney (FHM), Koopman (Erato), Asperen (EMI), Verlet (Astrée). All those are currently available (the Walcha versions only in France, but they are easy to get through Amazon.fr).

    KIRKPATRICK: Ralph Kirpatrick recorded the work twice. First in a very ugly sounding harpsichord, second in a sweet sounding clavichord. His approach is very rhythmical and, at the same time, motoric and melodic.

    His reading is very down to earth, very human: there's nothing abstract about the way he plays Bach. There is almost a Sturm und Drang approach I feel Bach would not be comfortable with. Nevertheless, it is very enrapturing.

    But I wouldn't suggest this as a first approach to the WTC. The reasons are twofold. First, as I said before, the clavichord is very difficult to play. As the pressure you apply to the key is directly relayed to the key, if you press it too strongly it will play louder, but also sharper as the string tension is increased. That means it is very easy to go out of tune. Also, if you throw you finger over the key, it will likely produce a buzz: the finger must just caress the key.

    Now Kirkpatrick plays rather fast - sometimes incredibly so - and all the passion is bound to produce all kinds of technical faults: you must be sure you can endure out of tune playing, twangy notes and so on.

    The second reason is that I think it is too personal an approach to the WTC. It is exciting, moving, enthusiastic even, pathetical sometimes, but it is rather extreme.

    The second book is very well recorded. You can listen to the very subtle beauty of clavichord tone.

    WALCHA I. Helmut Walcha recorded the cycle twice. The first version is available from France, together with the Goldberg variations and the inventions and symphonies, from EMI France (Amazon. fr: search Clavecin bien tempéré; at Amazon.uk search for Clavecin bien Tempùrù, on pop music (!!)).

    This is a powerful, masterful rendering of the WTC. The harpsichord used is a XXth century one, rather ponderous, but the version is top notch. Walcha was always a very cerebral player, and you'll find structure even in the smaller fugues. But this particular version is very noble and impressive. Manly but otherworldly if I may use that contradiction. The fugues are relentless, fantastically beautiful. One might prefer a more human approach, however.

    WALCHA II. Released by DGG France. When he was 70, Walcha rerecorded the work, at two very fine instruments. The readings are similar, but there is a decantation of emotion, as if Walcha is playing for eternity. An extremely beautiful version, perhaps one of the least approachable but perhaps the most subtly moving of them all.

    LEONHARDT. Leohardt's version bursts with human passion. A rather dark and somber passion, as always with this musician, but impressive, heroic and tragic. The second book is particularly impressive - fantastic, really. The great pathetic fugues of the 1st book (c#minor, b minor) are purely magical. Sound is not very good. But it is passable, it won't aggress and the rendering is so successful and impressive that you won't care about it. One of the major versions.

    GILBERT. Kenneth Gilbert is a subtle and poetic player. He never relies on strength but only on phrasing. I personally think this is the best version currently available. It won't impress, but it is so perfect, in such a good taste, so musical - not a simple piece is weak - and so akin to the flowing nature of Bach's phrasing that I don't think you could go wrong with this one. The harpsichord (Gilbert's own) is a pure marvel (if rather brightly recorded) and music just flows, crystal clear and poetic, as if water from a source.

    MORONEY. Davitt Moroney loves counterpoint. He is very cerebral and not particularly poetic. But the fugues are always interesting and his is a very austere but accurate approach to Bach.

    ASPEREN. Bob van Asperen was a pupil of Leonhardt. But he is a very different musician from his teacher. Whereas Leonhardt is dark and powerful, Asperen is alternately tender, sad or overjoyed. His is a very contrasted view of the WTC. The harpsichord is marvelous (but an old one, and difficult to master - which sometimes shows) and several pieces are very interesting. A good recommendation, although not at the same heights as Gilbert's, Walcha's or Leonhardt's.

    KOOPMAN. Koopman was the first well known pupil of Leonhardt to play the WTC. His version is very ornate, sometimes rather intense, at moments purely beautiful, but too rococo for my taste. Also, the more complex fugues and preludes totally lack structure, which I find rather disturbing. Dull sounding harpsichord. I almost never listen to it. I bought it because I saw Koopman play it live and it was breathtaking. But live music is a different experience from recorded music, and what seemed passion turned out to be something rather more superficial in the recordings. A 'second version' - very fun and interesting, but it lacks the gravity and deepness Bach requires.

    VERLET. The last version (chronologically) is Blandine Verlet's. Verlet's Bach is sometimes marvelous, sometimes almost derangingly strange. The WTC 1 is rather beautiful, very emotionally involving. The 2nd book less so. She phrases Bach with complete freedom. That is very refreshing, although in the process she gives the music a sort of unbalance quite alien to Bach. She has an abrupt musicianship, stressing all the contrasts and exploiting all the drama inherent to the music. But whereas Kirkpatrick does it in a forceful, manly way, and Leonhardt does it by an introspection of intensity, Verlet does it by an almost theatrical display of emotion, of ruptures and stresses. The harpsichord she plays is a marvel, with a certain amount of dynamics.

    That's it. I also know some commendable organ and piano versions (Gould's being absolutely NOT one of them).

    Hope you find it interesting.

    P.S.

    Pierre ahnta¨just recorded the first book.
    I was wishing to like it, and got it as soon as I could.

    I was mildly disapointed. This is because I cannot follow him in all the liberties he takes with the text.

    Of course when a musician plays to himself he usually indulges in liberties, but I need to feel they are suggested - I mean, really suggested - by the text; And I need to feel that the text is not too «bouleversé» - too modified.

    I could not agree with many of Hantaï's ways but it must be said that he gave an interview to Diapason where he said that the WTCI was a puzzle to him: he never seemed to be sure how to play many of the pieces.

    So perhaps that is an explanation. It is perhaps not a completely mature version. Pianists used to wait a very long time before really performing the WTC in public.

    That said, it is of course a very good version, sometimes very thrilling.

    When I listen to it again I may post further.
     
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    Rodrigo de Sá, Jun 19, 2003
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  2. Rodrigo de Sá

    tones compulsive cantater

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    Well, I liked it, RdS, even if the intricacies go over my head. In addition to listening to music in an aesthetic sense, I'm also interested in the technics of how composers achieve their effects, even though I'm poorly equipped to understand it. Well done, keep it up!
     
    tones, Jul 27, 2003
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  3. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Dear Tones: I'm very glad you liked it. As a matter of fact, the WTC is one of the least accessible entries to Bach's keyboard works. The French Suites, for instance, are much more melodic and caressing (except the first one: really dark and austere).

    The Goldbergs are usually very well liked, although I don't particularly like them (Shock, Horror! This from a Bach fan!!!).

    But having liked the WTC you are well into your way to paradise. The Art of Fugue is just a few steps ahead…

    I believe you bought the Moroney version. As I said, it is very good, but also very austere. I believe DDG released the first book by Gilbert at half price. Perhaps you would care to give it a go.

    It is a real pity we live so far apart. I'd be more than happy to lend you more Bach music.

    Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

    I must find time to update the review. I listened to one or two more WTCs.

    In particular I might mention Robert Levin. He recorded the two books for the Hansler integral. I find it very difficult to comment on this version. There is so much good to say about it and nevertheless I feel it is not a reference.

    The first impediment is the fact that he uses several instruments. Usually the organ is used for the most tragic and polyphonic dense preludes and fugues (and surprisingly for the d major Book II pf and some other eccentricities), he uses two different harpsichords, a clavichord (not really very beautiful) when he wants to introduce lightness of touch and, in the second book, a truly horrible XVIII Century fortepiano. All that makes it a very interesting version, if only for organological (=referring to instruments) considerations. But it seriously detracts from the global cohesion. Of course one might say there isn't a particular cohesion in the WTC, but as one uses to listen to it as a whole, it is disturbing.

    He is a formidable clavierist: he plays all the instruments marvelously. All the difficulties of mastering the clavichord are tamed, here. He does a fairly good job with the organ and, of course, the harpsichord. The pianoforte I suppose is well played, but the sound is truly horrible. Don't expect the sound of an Italian 'gravicembalo col piano e forte'. It is nothing like a harpsichord, it is nasal, muffled and brash at the same time. In reality it sounds like the old Audiolabs: awful.

    He generally plays the pieces rather fast, with great sense of continuity, but I do think the WTC could do with a little more introspection. That is the second reason I refrain to wholeheartedly recommend it.

    However, it is generally very good and very interesting. I'd say a good second version.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Jul 28, 2003
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  4. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Rodrigo de Sá, Jul 28, 2003
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  5. Rodrigo de Sá

    tones compulsive cantater

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    I guess the problem with WTC and Art is that they really are technical exercises, the former designed to exploit the possibilities of the tempered scale (of which Bach was a proponent) and the latter to exhaust the fugal possibilities on a given theme. I therefore think it really does take an ear with a certain education to really comprehend them in their full glory: most of their technical machinations go right over my head, I'm afraid. But then, if anyone had told me 10 years ago that I'd come to love Goldberg, I'd have thought them crazy, so I'll keep trying. I have only one Art, an orchestral version by Marriner and the ASMF. I find it a bit of a dirge (and if the ASMF can't make it listenable, I'm in trouble!). Perhaps a bit more practice (and a better version?).

    There's something in Bach that appeals to me, some sense of authority and certainty, even though I don't understand the mechanics underlying it. Bach reminds me of Swiss watchmakers, incredible intricacy just to make a couple of hands go around a watch face. At the moment, I'm at the stage of looking only at the watch face, but connosieurs can look beneath and see beautiful things. "Aha!" they'll say, "a tourbillion escapement!", whereas I wouldn't know a tourbillion escapement if I fell over one

    However, the music of Bach seems to know exactly where it's going. I find the same underlying strength in Beethoven, a solidity that seems lacking in other composers. Perhaps it's no wonder that it was Beethoven who cracked the famous pun on the name Bach (in German, a small stream) - his name should really be Ocean, said Beethoven.
     
    tones, Jul 28, 2003
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  6. Rodrigo de Sá

    Herman

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    I don't know about that comparison. Bach was a backwards-looking composer, one of the great summers-up in music history, and by many of his contemporaries he was considered to be working in old-hat formulas. Bach's sons were regarded as the hip ones. In comparison Beethoven was a violently progressive composer. Admittedly, just like Mozart, he used some Bach ideas towards the end of his career (fugues). Of course Beethoven even plays with this idea of being so innovative he doesn't know where the music is going, as in the transition to the finale in the Emperor Piano Cto, or the "Muss es sein?" in the last string quartet. And look at all those furious sketches! So in my humble mind there's little or no comparison between the two in this respect.

    Herman
     
    Herman, Jul 28, 2003
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  7. Rodrigo de Sá

    tones compulsive cantater

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    The key is "I find", Hermann. I wasn't saying that they were at all similar, I was saying that this is how I react to them.

    You're right of course; Bach's sons regarded the old man as a clever but hopelessly old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, and they distanced themselves from his style as soon as possible. And ol' Ludwig was certainly revolutionary in all sorts of ways. However, I find something intrinsically satisfying in the music of both that I rarely find elsewhere. Please don't ask me to explain it, because I can't - to me, both have a fundamental sense of "rightness" about them.
     
    tones, Jul 28, 2003
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  8. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Hi, Hermann; we crossed swords before at Naim's.

    Of course Bach is quite different from Beethoven. Beethoven's counterpoint, by the way, being quite a different technique – more imitative stuff, less real counterpoint, a Beethoven Fugue is often a fugato followed by a toccata like continuation – see opus 110, for instance, the great string quartet fugue, and perhaps foremost, the Waldstein.

    But I think I understand what Tones is saying. Both composers are very structural, and there is an unrelentless logic about the way the music goes on. Even when there are big contrasts (the sonata form, or a double or even triple fugue) the logic is forceful and both composers manage to unite what would seem to be polar opposites.

    So I quite agree with Tones, even if you are right about enormous differences in compositional techniques.

    A small word concerning the myth that Bach worked backwards and summed up all previous knowledge (the Old Testament – the WTC – and New Testament – the Beethoven sonatas – of Hans von Bülow [was it him who said that? Or Busoni?]).

    At the beginning of his career, Bach was a very progressive composer. He abandoned the old cantata structure (exemplified by Actus tragicus and Christ lag in Todesbanden, for instance) and embraced the da capo arias. Also, his fugue writing becomes more modern as time goes by: less voices, more expression, more modulations (the big E minor organ fugue, the 'scissors' one, for instance is incredibly modern – it is almost classical in its form). This is very obvious when you compare the first and second book of the WTC, the 2nd being much more modern harmonically.

    Even his Mass exemplifies this quite well: the two Kyries are very backward looking, but the Christe is almost rococo. That is because, as you know, the Mass is composed of pieces composed in different times of Bach life.

    And the Goldbergs – often said to capture all kinds of keyboard writing Bach had used previously – are really an answer to the 30 sonatas of Scarlatti, issued at Leipzig the year before Bach composed the Goldbergs. I think he just stated that: 1) He could also write light music; 2) But much more learned; 3) Much more difficult to play; 4) And all bounded together by the same underlying harmony. Which only means: I'm better than you, and beat you in every ground. In that sense, they are not backward looking (of course, he used counterpoint, but the overall sense of the Goldbergs is high spirited music, to compete with the new and simpler style).

    At the end of his life he joined a Society which promoted counterpoint. He then began a series of very complicated works (the Musical Offering, for instance, where many canons are presented as riddles). That happened because he loved counterpoint, surely, but also because he was severely rebuffed by younger composers, who thought his style to be complicated, fussy, and 'turgid'. Bach was defended by a friend, but there was no denying that he couldn't bring himself to let go of his beloved counterpoint and he took refuge with the neo-palestrinians. That is probably the origin of The Art of Fugue (which many musicologists think was to be presented at the Mizler society at Bach's 65th birthday – alas, he couldn't finish it).

    Bottom line. I'm not disputing the fact that Beethoven was a revolutionary and Bach was a revisionist. But it always nags me when I read that Bach is the summation of everything before him. That is simply not true (Buxtehude was never equaled by Bach in his own ground; neither did Frescobaldi, and Bach's polyphony is radically different from Palestrina's [but consider the E major fugue of WTC II]).

    He was a man of his time – a time of very fast change. He tried, perhaps feebly, to go with the times and failed. He therefore took shelter in the past. That, I think, is the true story.

    P.S.: How did this post got to be so long? Ah, but your posts at Naim's are also long.

    So Welcome Hermann, may we continue to gently cross (s)words here as well.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Jul 28, 2003
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  9. Rodrigo de Sá

    Herman

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    That was very interesting, thanks. And my posts at Naim aren't nearly as long as yours. I have found though that the longer they are the fewer response you get. Really long encyclopedic posts look kind of exclusionary, I guess.

    Incidentally I read an interesting review of a new Beethoven book by Maynard Solomon in the New York Times. It's called "Late Beethoven" and to go by the review seems to address a couple of the above issues.

    Here's a quote from the review: "Mr. Solomon strikes a judicious balance. "Romanticism may have given Beethoven license to represent the forbidden and the boundless," he writes, "but his will to form  his classicism, if you like  enabled him to set boundaries on the infinite, to portray disorder in the process of its metamorphosis into order.""

    Herman
     
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    Herman, Jul 29, 2003
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  10. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Hermann:

    that quote is very interesting. I quite agree with it - but I'm no Beethoven expert.

    As for long posts, I agree with you. But there is a tradition over here (since HFC days, through Groovehandle to ZeroGain) to write long introductory posts. Hence the Bach cantata long post, the WTC or the organ music ones.

    I rather feel these threads are actually useful. They are useful for someone wanting to know a bit of the background and interpretation of the pieces and it can lead to interesting comparisons.

    But yes, for conversation they are better kept as short as possible.

    I wish you will become a regular contributor here: your posts are usually interesting.

    So,
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Jul 30, 2003
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  11. Rodrigo de Sá

    titian

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    Re: The Well Tempered Clavier, Introduction

    Today I took some time to reduce the queue of records I have bought and not listened to.
    In programme was also the WTC part I and II with G. Leonhardt, a 5 LP Box from Harmonia mundi (EMI) 1C 153-99752/56. The first part was recorded in 1973 while the second in 1968

    RDS, I agree with you about the interpretation especially when you use the words passion, impressive and heroic. About tragic I would say "maybe". In places (for example the no. 4 in the first part) he puts lot of power in the music and this is accentuated by the characteristics of the cembalo he plays in this recording which has much more extended mid and low frequencies than high ones. The harpsichord in the part 1 was constructed in 1972 by David Rubio and modelled on an instrument of Pascal Taskin with these characteristics.
    For the second part Leonhardt used an harpsichord of Skrowroneck made in 1962, which has more high frequencies.

    I completely disagree on what you say about the sound quality, especially regarding the first part. Or let's put it in this way: the recordings I have are very high quality. Very clear in all frequencies with nice ambience also due to the characteristics of the instrument used. In no circumstances I was negatively attracked by the sound quality.
    In the second part maybe there is some slight echo but I heard so many worse recorings....
    I must admit that these records are new!

    regards

    titian
     
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    titian, Sep 21, 2003
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  12. Rodrigo de Sá

    Herman

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    leonhardt WTC

    I have the very same silver WTC box. The Leonhardt recording is available too in two cd-boxes, and they keep getting cheaper.

    The instrument used in the first WTC-book is absolutely gorgeous.

    Herman
     
    Herman, Sep 21, 2003
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  13. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Titian:

    1
    Regarding tragedy, wait until you reach the bminor and the h minor ones... But the c#minor is tragic by itself. I think Leonhardt's version empahsizes this: the fugue is played forcefully, but as you can see for yourself, the music gets really nowhere.

    The prelude is totally dark and comes as a prayer from a defeated soul (it is played on the second manual, with the second 8' stop). He doesn't even play the appoggiaturas, perhaps to stress the total lack of hope.

    Then the fugue appears, all the stops engaged (8+8+4) with its very somber theme and harmonically dense counterpoint. But the first countersubject is, itself, a tragic appearance, because it is played so forcefully and it just leads to nothing - a tragic undertaking if there ever was one. The second countersubject is an obstinate one; and so you have the combination of somber darkness, almost schubertian sense of loss and leading to nowhere obstinacy. All that played with strength.

    The piece dissolves itself in the pa-pa-pa-pa-pararam rhythm of the second countersubject. I find all this force leading nowhere very tragic. Walcha's rendering is heroic.

    2
    Regarding the harpsichords. The Skowroneck (modeled after Dulcken) is a very famous instrument. It is extremely bright and was the instrument that took most of the public away from the usual Neupert Bach Models everyone seemed to be using.

    It is really very bright, bordering on the unlistenable (see for yourself: the 1st version of Bach's partitas). The David Rubio Taskin is not very Taskin like. Of course there are a lot of original Taskins, but they are usually less bright than the Rubio one. The sound rendering of the 1st book is, therefore, overbright, even if not so bright as the 2nd book.

    Leonhardt changed his views on harpsichords as time went by. Nowadays, if he plays Bach he usually chooses a German like instrument (modeled after the Michael Mietke you can hear in the v. Asperen Goldbergs). The sound is duller but, in a way, more delicate. It slightly resembles the Kirkmans and Schudis (English instruments) even if it is less ponderous.

    3
    Sound quality. I find it passable. The Rubio is too brightly recorded (perhaps it was recorded too close to the instrument), and there is an unmistakable lack of air between the notes (both books) - a kind of compact sound that could not be more different from the real thing.

    A real harpsichord sounds airier, less ponderous and lighter (even if its bass notes are very rich). For a well recorded harpsichord you might turn to Skip Sempé's version of Chambonnières (DHM) of for Leonhardt himself playing the Partitas for the second time (EMI). They capture the very high harmonics without making them coarse, and manage to give you the attack and extinction sound that is so characteristic of harpsichord tone.
     
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    Rodrigo de Sá, Sep 24, 2003
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  14. Rodrigo de Sá

    titian

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    harpsichord recordings

    RdS,
    nice to read from you after such a long time!

    Have you heard the sonatas of Scarlatti with Luciano Sgrizzi on harpsichord?
     
    titian, Sep 24, 2003
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  15. Rodrigo de Sá

    Herman

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    opinions and facts

    Quoting myself: "The instrument used in the first WTC-book is absolutely gorgeous."

    Quoting RdS: " The sound rendering of the 1st book is, therefore, overbright […]"

    We seem to differ here. I don't quite understand the word "therefore". I don't find the instrument overbright.

    Herman
     
    Herman, Sep 24, 2003
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  16. Rodrigo de Sá

    titian

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    Re: opinions and facts

    me neither but could it be that we are talking about two different interpretations or the recordings on Lp and CD differ quite much in quality?
     
    titian, Sep 24, 2003
    #16
  17. Rodrigo de Sá

    Herman

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    Re: Re: opinions and facts

    1 nope
    2 only marginally
     
    Herman, Sep 24, 2003
    #17
  18. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Re: opinions and facts

    Perhaps not very clear, I agree. What I meant was: if the Rubio copy is a faithful one, what you ear is an overbright rendering, because Taskins are usually less bright. If it is not an overgright recording, the instrument is an overbright copy of a Taskin.

    Now, if we were talking about a Goermans-Taskin (at the Russell collection), it would be different.

    But the question really transcends the bright/dull issue: truth is, harpsichord sound is very rich in overtones; the French instruments are not very bright - there is not a lot of energy in the upper partials, but they *are* there, and never so forceful as the rendering of DHM in the case of Book 1.

    If I must be absolutely rigorous, I would say the recording lacks in very high partials and compensates for that by emphasising the not so high ones: this produces a bright and relatively aggressive sound, quite different from the actual sound of a French harpsichord of the late 1700.

    What is more, sound engineers often change the sound of harpsichords - perhaps to a greater extent than other instruments. Harpsichords are very difficult to get right: they sound like almost unsubstantial and yet they are loud enough for a medium sized hall. You can play them in your room and it won't be overbearing, or in a large library and the sound still reaches all people.

    Most hifi gear is incapable of rendering that kind of sound (of course I don't mean Titian's or Hermann's), and, therefore, the engineers often make the sound harder (relatively low partials have high energy) in order to get accross to the listener using a moderately good hifi system.

    For instance, take the Gilbert Bach recordings. The WTC is overbright; the Chromatic Fantasy is almost perfect; the Inventions and symphonies sound almost like an italian harpsichord (well, not quite). In my opinion, the best recording of that particular instrument (a glorious Couchet-Blanchet-Taskin, perhaps played by Mozart) is the last harpsichord record Gilbert offered us: The Purcell suites. In this recording you listen to a French instrument: solid, and yet almost ethereal. Not overbright, yet never muffled.

    I would like you to listen to a really good harpsichord record. Try Leonhardt's Couperin (Philips) - a faithful copy of a French instrument. Or the incredible version of the Chromatic Fantasy by Gilbert (a true French harpsichord, long supposed to be a modified Couchet [of the Ruckers family], but now thought to be a
    Blanchet, using fragments of a Couchet sounding board, later modified by Taskin); for an italian instrument try the last Frescobaldi by Leonhardt. For a German harpsichord try the Italian Concerto by Gilbert: a magificent Gräbner harpsichord and a smaller one by Vater; teh already mentioned Partitas by Leonhardt (a nice Mietke copy; the original is not half as nice).

    Every harpsichord has its own sound, to a far greater extent than a piano, and even perhaps than a violin (I suppose a violinist would disagree). Suppose you compare a Bechstein, a Steinway and a Steinway and Sons. The difference between them is far smaller than the difference between a Rückers and a Taskin, not to mention an Italian instrument.

    Well, I hope I have interested you: if you found the Rubio glorious, search a little and you'll find the true marvels of harpsichord sound.

    By the way, I am in the process of buying a harpsichord myself. So the issue is a very pragmatic one for me right now...

    Finally, let me correct - rather update - an information I gave in a previous post. The second version of the Partitas by Leonhardt may be found under the VIRGIN label, and not the Emi one.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2003
    Rodrigo de Sá, Sep 24, 2003
    #18
  19. Rodrigo de Sá

    Herman

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    matters of taste

    RdS,

    I have recordings of most instruments you mention: Gilbert with a Couchet / Blanchet and Glen Wilson with Mietke copies. Possibly they are a bit richer than Leonhardt's Rubio. This may however also be caused by the fact that both Wilson's and Gilbert's recordings are more of the "the instrument is as big as your room" variety than Leonhardt's.

    There's also the problem that to my mind Gilbert is a bafflingly boring musician. But apart from this I stick to my taste that Leonhardt's instrument produces a beautiful sound - you just have a different taste.

    Herman
     
    Herman, Sep 25, 2003
    #19
  20. Rodrigo de Sá

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Re: matters of taste

    Once more we differ. Gilbert is not an easy musician to like – contrary yo Leonhardt, a very straightforward one. But if you like Bach and the French school it pays to try to understand what Gilbert is trying to say. Leonhardt has a relatively more vertical view of music: his phrases are shorter and more rhythmically characterized than Gilbert's, and harmony plays an important role in marking the key points of a piece of music (I'm not criticizing, only trying to describe).

    Gilbert's approach is much more vocal: he tries to capture the flowing nature of the voices and every voice or melody is characterized as a gesture – this is most obvious in his playing of the French clavecinistes. But of course also in Bach, perhaps chiefly in the Chromatic Fantasy, but also very clearly in the Suites (French, English and, chiefly, the Partitas, one of his best recordings). For instance, his playing of the beautiful Allemande of the 4th, D major, Partita is exemplary: if you follow the 'left hand' lines, you'll notice all kinds of tiny rhythmical alterations which render the gesture of the 'right hand' melody freer.

    When he plays fugues he naturally centers in the flowing and breathing of every voice. As someone who has ever tried to play a Bach fugue well knows, this leads to all sorts of difficulties, because you cannot use agogics properly (the end of a phrase may not be stressed if that stressing upsets the flowing of the rest of the voices), and it has to be done via micro-agogics and articulation. This is what Gilbert does, and, to my taste, he does it sublimely well.

    If you have his Partitas and the scores (or if you know the pieces really well) listen to the music partition in hand. You'll understand what I am talking about.

    This leads me to one of the least understood of Gilbert's records: the Art of Fugue. You can listen to every voice, and the music flows as if there is no interpreter between you and the score: just perfectly played music. It has been said that he played it with almost teutonic stolidity. Nothing could be further from the truth, I think: all the voices breathe and flow.

    Of course there is a question of taste, also: one may like stronger contrasts and a more bass oriented playing (I mean, with Bach – but not usually in the fugues – you can actually play a piece 'from the bass line', as Kopman and, to a lesser extent, Leonhardt, do). But for those who like counterpoint by itself, I think Gilbert's way is just perfect.

    Again, probably only a question of taste.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Sep 25, 2003
    #20
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