The works on this CD were originally intended
as teaching materials for Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann –
the earliest versions appeared in the Klavierbüchlein für
W Fr. Bach in 1720 – and for other keyboard students,
as they progressed from two-part to three-part performance.
There are fewer pieces than in the better-known Well-tempered
Klavier because Bach avoids the more remote keys with
multiple accidentals, as a concession to his students. The
music may not be in the same category as the better-known
‘48’ but it’s all much more worthwhile than the Czerny studies
under which generations of would-be pianists have laboured
and it can sound well in the right hands.
Bach’s Inventions – under which heading
I also include what are referred to on the new CD as Sinfonias
– appear on record in all sorts of guises – on the harpsichord,
the piano, the organ and even in arrangements for other instruments.
In this last category, Dominy Clements made the performance
by Janine Jansen (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Torleif
Thedéen (cello) Recording of the Month in December, 2007 (Decca
475 9081 – see review).
This is a particularly well-filled disc, clocking in at almost
80 minutes, with the addition of solo violin Partita
No.2 to the two- and three-part Inventions.
Most listeners will be happy with Angela Hewitt’s
piano performances of the two sets of Inventions, coupled
with the Fantasia in c (BWV906) and Chromatic Fantasia
and Fugue (BWV903) on Hyperion CDA66746, which Kirk McElhearn
described in glowing terms: ‘You would be hard pressed to
find a better piano recording of the Inventions and Sinfonias,
and with the two Fantasias thrown in, this set is as close
to perfect as they come’ – see review.
By coincidence, I happened to listen as I was working on this
review to BBC Radio 3’s two-handed overview of the available
recordings of these Inventions and was not surprised
to find myself liking what I heard of Glenn Gould’s and Angela
Hewitt’s recordings – the two performers who are the exception
to my general dislike of Bach on the piano – or to find Hewitt
named as the piano choice. If you like Bach on the piano,
you’ll be even more content than me with the Hyperion CD.
Fans of Wanda Landowska and her iron-frame
harpsichord will be well served by a 7-CD budget set on RCA
which Dominy Clements made Bargain of the Month (82876-67891-2,
with Well-Tempered Clavier, etc. – see review).
I’m even less of a fan of monster harpsichords since I reviewed
Peter Watchorn’s recent book Isolde Ahlgrim, Vienna and
the Early Music Revival, but I have to admit that the
excerpts from Landowska’s playing which were played on Radio
3 sounded both idiomatic and musical and the set is a real
bargain at around £20.
Much more authentic harpsichord performances
are provided by Kenneth Gilbert on DG Archiv (415 112-2) and
Blandine Verlet on Astrée (E8603); the latter even offers
as an appendix the ornamented versions of some of these pieces
which were included in a later collection and which may have
been written out by Bach himself. Unfortunately, Astrée CDs
are currently between distributors in the UK, surely a temporary
problem, and Kenneth Gilbert’s Bach has been much reduced
by the deletions axe – his Inventions are no longer
available, even online from the dgwebshop. I haven’t heard
the version by Masaaki Suzuki (BIS-CD1009) but it has been
generally well received.
Cristiano Holtz, who plays a modern copy of
a Silbermann instrument of ca.1775, offers a rather lame excuse
for playing these works on the clavichord: ‘to illustrate
how well they sound on the instrument.’ In fact, there is
a much better reason: the clavichord would have been the most
common instrument in any musical household in Bach’s time
and it is probable that Wilhelm Friedemann would have played
them on that instrument. One’s first impression is that the
music sounds somewhat damped down by comparison with performances
on other keyboard instruments, but the ear soon adjusts to
the more subtle tone of the clavichord. It is a notoriously
difficult instrument to record but the engineers seem to have
done their best.
My other, more serious, initial reaction was
that Holtz’s tempi are on the deliberate side and comparison
with Hewitt reveals that he is consistently slightly slower
than her – sometimes by a fairly wide margin. A case in point
is the two-part Invention No.5 (BWV776, Hortus track
10) where Holtz’s 2:12 is really too deliberate by comparison
with Hewitt’s 1:26 (Hyperion track 6). András Schiff on Decca
(411 974-2) takes 1:31 for this movement. If there is such
a thing as a ‘right’ tempo, Hewitt and Schiff seem to strike
it from the beginning – try the opening bars of Hewitt on
the Hyperion website or iTunes – whereas Holtz sounds as if
still trying the piece out. I must stress that I had this
feeling before I listened to Hewitt or checked anyone else’s
timings for this piece.
The differences elsewhere are less extreme.
In Invention No.6 (BWV777, Hortus track 11) Holtz is
actually a few seconds faster than Hewitt (tr.7): both seem
to have got the tempo just right this time. It would be unfair
to expect Holtz’s clavichord to allow him to be as expressive
as Hewitt’s piano; even so, though their tempi are very similar
in this piece, I missed the rhythmic drive which she brings
to it. I did hear that drive from Holtz in places elsewhere
– Invention No.7, track 13, for example; here, though
Hewitt at 1:09 (Hyperion tr.8) is again noticeably faster
than Holtz’s 1:35, his rhythmic drive makes for a suitably
perky performance. His account of the final three-part Invention,
No. 15 (BWV801), too, on the final track, almost persuaded
me that I’d misjudged him until I listened to Hewitt again
I don’t think that there are any current rivals
who perform this repertoire on the clavichord, so the Hortus
CD earns a place in the catalogue, if for that reason alone.
Richard Troeger’s Lyrichord version (Bach on the Clavichord,
Volume III) is not available on CD in the UK; though it is
available to download from eMusic, the 48 tracks will soak
up almost your whole monthly allowance if you’re on the 50-track-a-month
tariff, which is hardly feasible. In any case, Troeger seems
at times to be afflicted with the opposite of Holtz’s problem,
rattling off 2-part Invention No. 5 (BWV776) in 52
The Hortus booklet of notes is informative
and the cover is attractive, though I’m not sure that the
Meissen figurine puts the listener in quite the right mood
for Bach. The English version of the rear insert leaves something
to be desired: ‘The clavichord only got it’s peak in the mid
18th century when it also became larger and unfretted’
needs re-phrasing and re-punctuating to say the least. I note
that both the incorrect apostrophe and the inelegant ‘got’
have been corrected on the Hortus website.
I began by saying that the music sounded well
in the right hands. On the whole, I’m sorry to say that, with
a few exceptions, Holtz does make the Inventions sound
all too much like those Czerny Studies. Just for once, I’m
going to have to recommend a piano version of Bach, at least
until the Verlet version reappears. Even when it does, there
will be strong case for recommending Angela Hewitt’s CD: she
actually sounds as if she’s enjoying the experience and she
seems more rhythmically stable than Schiff’s rival piano versions,
though I’ve enjoyed listening to the latter, courtesy of the
Universal classicsand jazz website where, generously, each
individual Invention may be heard in full.