Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto in C major for 2 harpsichords, BWV 1061 (1733-34) [16:38]
Wilhelm Friedmann BACH (1710-1784)
Sonata for 2 harpsichords in F major, F. 10 (c. 1773) [17:09]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata in D major for 2 harpsichords, KV 448/375a (1781) [23:25]
Harpsichorduo (Elżnieta Stevańska and Mariko Kato (harpsichords))
rec. 2016, Władysław Żelenski Second Level State School of Music, Kraków.
DUX 1337 [58:11]
Harpsichord duo recordings have the potential to provide a stimulating listening experience, and I still enjoy dipping into Skip Sempé and Olivier Fortin’s Bach programme on the Paradizo label (review). Elżnieta Stevańska is a veteran of numerous recordings, including significant contributions to the Naxos Penderecki series. Marko Kato is one of her former students, performing in duo with Stevańska as well as developing a vibrant solo career.
Frequently used in wider ensemble settings as a basso continuo instrument, the harpsichord flourished in the 16th and 17th century as a solo instrument throughout Europe, also being promoted to the front of the orchestra for concert works such as J.S. Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concertos’. The Concerto in C major BWV 1061 comes from this period in Köthen, during which Bach was able to concentrate more on instrumental music beyond church commitments. Originally written for two harpsichords and strings, this is a substantial piece which puts considerable demands on the pair of performers in terms of synchronizing, and the rhythmic impulse is held together well in this performance. The polyphonic complexities of the first movement are communicated well, as is the melodic elegance of the central Adagio, with careful articulation preventing too much legato overlap and maintaining a sensitive clarity.
Wilhelm Friedmann Bach is likely to have been one of his father’s targets for practice discipline in making his two-harpsichord transcription of BWV 1061, and the lessons thus learned made his Sonata for 2 harpsichords in F a work thought to be by Johann Sebastian in the echoes that emerge in his eldest son’s composing. While there is a good deal of ‘antique’ polyphony in evidence, the more fashionable Galant style is also in evidence in this sonata. There is some lovely music here, the imitations of the central Andante creating a nice conversation between the two harpsichords. There is a point of comparison here with Julia Brown’s Naxos edition (review), the two players here taking a slightly more relaxed tempo and bringing out a little more expressive depth. Stevańska and Kato also take the final Presto faster, so there is a sense of proportion being maintained here though not necessarily making for a more spectacular reading.
Mozart’s Sonata in D major KV 448/375a is better known in numerous recordings on two pianos, that with Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu on Sony Classics remaining a ‘desert island choice’ for many. This work still sounds very fine on two harpsichords, though the dynamic contrasts are inevitably more limited. It is intriguing to hear how climaxes are reached through thickening of textures, and so the extrovert and dramatic nature of the first movement is preserved. The central Andante is a little on the brisk side, given that the sustaining quality of the harpsichord is a great deal less than that of a modern grand piano. With some nice contrasts with different stops, this is however not a version that particularly moves the heart. The final Allegro molto on the other hand is not particularly molto, though performed with suitable verve and wit in some of the right-hand figurations.
This is a well-programmed and nicely performed recording from Harpsichorduo. The recording is close but not discomfortingly so, and set in an unremarkable acoustic that is not too dry, but also adds very little juice to the sound. I have enjoyed hearing this disc though doubt it will have many airings beyond this review. These two players are well matched, though I often found myself longing for a lighter rhythmic touch. The booklet notes are adequate though there is no information on the instruments used. The cover picture is a single instrument in mirror image, on inspection the one on the left no doubt giving experienced players a touch of vertigo.