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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Inventions and Sinfonias
Prelude in c minor, BWV999 (for lute, c.1720) [1:31]
Fughetta in c minor, BWV961 (date? doubtful authenticity) [2:01]
Preambulum in g minor, BWV930 [2:38]
Minuet in c minor, BWV813 (from French Suite, c.1722) [1:19]
Sarabande in f minor, BWV823 (spurious) [4:18]
Fifteen two-part Inventions (1723)
Invention No.1 in C, BWV772 [1:21]
Invention No.2 in c minor, BWV773 [2:09]
Invention No.3 in D, BWV774 [1:20]
Invention No.4 in d minor, BWV775 [1:03]
Invention No.5 in E-flat, BWV776 [2:12]
Invention No.6 in E, BWV777 [3:29]
Invention No.7 in e minor, BWV778 [1:35]
Invention No.8 in F, BWV779 [1:01]
Invention No.9 in f minor, BWV780 [2:09]
Invention No.10 in G, BWV781 [1:01]
Invention No.11 in g minor, BWV782 [1:51]
Invention No.12 in A, BWV783 [1:44]
Invention No.13 in a minor, BWV784 [1:31]
Invention No.14 in B-flat, BWV785 [1:40]
Invention No.15 in b minor, BWV786 [1:31]
Fifteen three-part Sinfonias (Inventions) (1723)
Sinfonia No.1 in C, BWV787 [1:25]
Sinfonia No.2 in c minor, BWV788 [2:02]
Sinfonia No.3 in D, BWV789 [1:37]
Sinfonia No.4 in d minor, BWV790 [1:55]
Sinfonia No.5 in E-flat, BWV791 [3:03]
Sinfonia No.6 in E, BWV792 [1:28]
Sinfonia No.7 in e minor, BWV793 [2:34]
Sinfonia No.8 in F, BWV794 [1:17]
Sinfonia No.9 in f minor, BWV795 [4:18]
Sinfonia No.10 in G, BWV796 [1:12]
Sinfonia No.11 in g minor, BWV797 [2:34]
Sinfonia No.12 in A, BWV798 [1:34]
Sinfonia No.13 in a minor, BWV799 [1:52]
Sinfonia No.14 in B-flat, BWV800 [1:50]
Sinfonia No.15 in b minor, BWV801 [1:43]
Christiano Holtz (clavichord)
rec. Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, Netherlands, 5, 7 April 2008. DDD.

Experience Classicsonline


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 (Hyperion tr.31).

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 seconds.

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.
Brian Wilson







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