(The) Secret Bach

The ‘domestic’ clavichord restituted: Thrilling and revealing, this is bach playing of real stature

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

(The) Secret Bach

  • Chromatic Fantasia
  • Adagio
  • (3) Sonatas and 3 Partitas, Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV1004
  • Fugue
  • Klavierbüchlein für W. F. Bach, Allemande in G minor, BWV836
  • Klavierbüchlein für W. F. Bach, Menuet in G, BWV841
  • Klavierbüchlein für W. F. Bach, Menuet in G, BWV843
  • Chorale Variations, Partite diverse sopra O Gott, du frommer Gott, BWV767

Christopher Hogwood’s incisive mind regularly leads to strong and imaginative concepts and this, the first of a series of clavichord discs dedicated to Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, is a perfect example. The clavichord has a history of domestic usage, the intimate nature of its utterances seeming both exquisite and slightly enigmatic. Its main mechanical feature of stretching strings gives the player the ‘touch’ to grade dynamics, alter pitch through vibrating and other idiomatic colouring. These are delicate nuances with an instrument of such softness, offered as fleeting gestures, usually for the player’s ears alone.

We know from Forkel (probably via CPE or WF Bach) that Bach loved the instrument since it provided a means of expression which was quite distinct from the up-front harpsichord and undeveloped fortepiano. Hogwood uses three clavichords of very particular tonal quality and provides an appropriate level of added interest in that all the works comprise an element of arrangement. This concurs with the idea that a work in Bach’s day was a living organism, ripe for review and revisiting.

As ever with Hogwood, the musical ideas are fortified with deft historical reference. He quotes FC Griepenkerl (in a 1819 edition of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue) suggesting that Bach must be treated objectively, banning ‘everything which is fashionable, subjective and individual’. Hogwood’s revealing subsequent remark, ‘a lesson for today’, implies that a personal stamp is undesirable: a salutary reminder of the early ’80s blow-torch era. In fact, Hogwood brings plenty of individuality, at best a thoughtful and devotional reading of O Gott, du frommer Gott, played on a Schmahl copy from Finchcocks with a lovely cushioned and even tone.

While the Bodechtel clavichord provides contrast for the shorter vignettes (recalling Violet Woodhouse’s famous description of the clavichord as ‘a packet of pins’), the larger Hass is used for the Chromatic Fantasia and the Partita in A minor (which is a transposed transcription of the violin Partita in D minor); it is as extrovert and bold as you get with a clavichord. Hogwood takes a dignified and measured view of the Partita, though the sarabande lacks in fantasy and the willingness to explore the possibilities of the instrument. The chaconne, arranged by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, contains a few questionable harmonic and figurative quirks, but Hogwood glides through them fluidly and genially. Quite the antithesis of Busoni and yet it leads the mind and ears into revitalised pastures of how this music can be experienced afresh.

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