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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Klavierübung Part 1, Opus 1, Partitas (6) for keyboard, BWV 825-830 (1725-1731) 2CDs [120.05]
Fernando Valenti (harpsichord)
rec. 1984.
No notes; each partita is a single track. Cover photo of performer.
FERNANDO VALENTI no number [51.43 + 68.22]
Available from Barbara Cadranel at
More information about other releases is available from

A Performer’s Guide to the Keyboard Partitas of Bach, by Fernando Valenti (1928-1990). Yale University Press, 1989. 128pp; musical illustrations, index. 7¼ x 10¼ inches. ISBN 0-300-04313-9. £30

Fernando Valenti as a harpsichordist can only be compared to Wanda Landowska in his influence on many generations of artists. The ones who didn’t study harpsichord because they fell in love with Landowska’s recordings, did so because they fell in love with Valenti’s recordings. The carping attacks on him, his style, and his influence, for a dismal time negated much of his brilliant contribution, but it is to be hoped that that time has — with the death of certain influential critics and teachers — passed, and that he can again be properly revered as one of the two greatest harpsichordists of the twentieth century. Until recently not a single one of his large legacy of recordings was available but that is beginning to change, and we can hope that the change will be rapid.

Right away in the first pages Valenti asserts his strong personality by establishing a distance from the student, who asks questions, to be replied to by the Professor. I say replied to because he makes it immediately clear that the teacher can and will only give suggestions but the student must in the final analysis figure things out. Valenti says that these questions were examples of those actually asked in his classes. And make no mistake, this book is about performing the partitas and while there is much information of interest to a listener, the focus is on actually playing at the keyboard. A person who has never taken a keyboard lesson nor looked at the scores of the Partitas and related works will find himself or herself bombarded with information which would be nonsense to them.

He excludes discussion of whether the Partitas were written for the clavichord, harpsichord, or pianoforte (or lute or organ), and the one attempt by a student to force this issue is replied to by "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". However, I can answer that one for him: in 1731, nobody was writing exclusively for the new and unfamiliar pianoforte, but no one was writing without an eye to its likely future, so the partitas were certainly written first for the harpsichord, because that was the current popular recital instrument; for the clavichord, because that was the student’s home practising instrument; and for the pianoforte, because that could be expected to become more popular in the future. Whether Bach’s friend Sylvius Leopold Weiss could play them on the lute or not was none of Bach’s concern as Weiss was capable of making any adjustments for such use as he required, and Bach would have respected his right and duty to do so properly and respectfully. On the organ? Well, maybe, but not primarily so. There were no "amateur" organists: one studying the organ played the clavichord, including the pedal clavichord, until he could be trusted with, and could afford, a real instrument. And again, an organist was used to changing things as necessary, since every piece had to be adjusted for the acoustics of each individual church and for the registration and temperament of each particular instrument. So the answer to the question of whether the partitas were written for the harpsichord, clavichord, or pianoforte (or the organ or the lute) is: yes. In any event the Partitas have a long and honorable performance tradition on the pianoforte, and only Helmut Walcha and Fernando Valenti have been able to make them sound a lot better on the harpsichord.

As the popularity of keyboard instruments and the likelihood of their being employed varied during Bach’s life, his revision of pieces already written was very probably to take this change into account. A piece written in 1720 for performance on clavichord and harpsichord would be revised for use in 1745 on a pianoforte. Do not mistake, as one critic did, that Bach, like Beethoven, struggled to perfect his works through many versions. Bach may have changed his mind, but he never struggled, and his earliest version, played on the instrument for which it was intended, may well be the best.
As if one needs this comment after hearing his Scarlatti recordings, Valenti was a jovial, extroverted man. He drank and smoked lavishly. He served as M.C. for a benefit piano concert (fortunately recorded) where he introduced a roster of the greatest living pianists with wit and charm. Yet his Spanish cultural background gave him a delight in establishing a dignified distance from his students, which, from personal testimony, was breached at the correct time by Valenti reaching across personally and warmly.

The score for the Partitas is remarkable among Bach’s works in a number of ways. First, it was engraved by Bach, or at least under his close supervision, so it is not unreasonable to assume, as Valenti assumes, that not only are there absolutely no mistakes, but that every single note, spot, and stroke is there for an expressive purpose. It was Bach’s first published work and was subtitled "Opus 1." With this work he addressed his public by setting himself up among the immortals, most directly comparing himself with the deeply respected Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) - not to be confused with the much better known Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) - his predecessor as kapellmeister at Leipzig. No one at the time would have believed the astonishing truth, that by future generations Kuhnau’s music would be all but forgotten and he would only be remembered as the man who preceded Bach at Leipzig, a mere footnote to Bach’s career.

The partita score, subtitled Clavierübung,* "keyboard practice," is, among other things, just that. Besides the usual fugues** with their various kinds of introductions, and brilliantly rhythmic polyphonic structures erected on the foundation of trite dance rhythms, there are here found some of Bach’s most beautiful dramatic arias, with all the embellishments and ornaments written out, a priceless example of Baroque taste that can, or should be, applied to our performance of many other composers’ works, composers who did not leave us such fine examples.

The recording does not, as you must surely expect, follow strictly all the recommendations given in the book, for Valenti was an artist not a rhetorician. However upon reading the discussion in the book, and then listening to the performance, I had a much richer and deeper musical experience than any previous performance of the partitas has given me, and I have known these works well for a long time, and even have played at them, on occasion, on harpsichord, piano and clavichord. It should be noted that the disks are sold without program notes, and refer the listener to the book for information.
The instrument used in this recording has at least two ranks and two manuals, and there are register changes between sections, but the effect is always very subtle, nothing like the extravagance of tone color in his earlier recordings.

This matter of register changes during harpsichord performances has been debated bitterly and dogmatically. At the time decades ago when the nascent original instrument performance movement showed signs of becoming a restrictive force, violist and conductor Emmanuel Vardi pointed out, largely to deaf ears, that the neither the Renaissance nor the Baroque were eras of smallness or restraint, but of extravagance in every manner and every detail, that whatever was possible would be done. What an absurd suggestion that the keyboardist who played organ music with a kaleidoscopic variety of tonalities, with at times two assistants at the console pulling and pushing stop levers for him would, at the keyboard of the harpsichord, don a monk’s demeanor, dismiss his assistants, and forswear all tonal variety! What was possible was done, and the confirmed existence of a single example of a multi-manual, multi-rank harpsichord from the baroque period — and in fact we have many such — proves that then, as well as now, everybody would want to play one and everybody would want to hear them played.

Today it is not for everyone to own a Steinway, but everybody wants to. I know of no concert artist who defends the exclusive performance or recording of the Mendelssohn Songs without Words on a small upright piano because that was what most people played them on in Victorian England. Foot pedals on large harpsichords are merely a modern solution to the "servant problem", a sociological development rather than an aesthetic one, allowing a performer who couldn’t afford to pay two "pullers" to make the same frequent changes in registration as the more affluent artist could. The classic great recordings of Sylvia Marlowe and Fernando Valenti, restored and re-released - by me if by no one else - will make the case, and "authenticity" will no longer be used as a brickbat by the timidly incompetent to compensate their lack of imagination and theatrical instinct.
* A reasonable French translation of klavierübung is études de piano the substance of Chopin’s 1833 Op. 10 publication at Leipzig, which likewise asserted his maturity as a serious composer.
** Bach wrote fugues the way an oak tree produces acorns. One imagines it was only by difficult and conscientious effort that he could write anything other than fugues, and most of these "other" works are published in the various volumes of klavierübung, as though he were trying to answer publicly those of his critics who derided him for his skill at polyphony and his relative lack of ability at simple consonant monody. Indeed, what was once considered to be Bach’s greatest "tune," Bist du bei Mir, has recently been shown to have been written by somebody else, but Bach copied it into his notebooks, perhaps as a challenge to himself to write something at least as good, a thing he never achieved.

Paul Shoemaker

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