The purpose of this disc is to show the wide variety of predecessors of Johann Sebastian Bach from his home region of Thuringia. The impetus comes from a reconstruction of a 1715 harpsichord built locally, and therefore the notion of the sound of such an instrument would make an interesting touch. As usual, this is a mixed bag of keyboard music that begins with Bach and ends with his colleague George Frederic Handel, though it is true that the latter can hardly be called Thuringian in the strictest sense of the term. The Bach works, of course, have been recorded before and exist in numerous versions both for organ and harpsichord, but some of the other composers on the disc may be less well known (Handel, naturally, being the exception).
The opening Toccata and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 914, is a particularly strange work, with the opening movement having some odd modulations and a quirky tendency to switch modes at unexpected moments. The Fugue is particularly gnarly, especially on the harpsichord where the registration requires an absolute touch to get right. The two other Bach works, the Prelude in A Major, BWV 896, and the G-Minor Fantasia, BWV 917, do not rise to the heights of the Toccata and Fugue, the latter being almost like an exercise in counterpoint than a true fantasia and the former having a bell-like dance melody above a meandering bass line that ends almost as quickly as it begins. The earliest work on the disc is a capriccio by Tarquinio Merula (1594-1665) that is based upon an ascending scale of semitones arranged in contrapuntal fashion. Here the voices sort of trip over one another in their entrances resulting in the occasional tortuously close harmony.
Most of the remaining works are from the era immediately preceding Bach, including a work possibly by his own relative, Johann Christoph (1642-1703). This Prelude and Fugue, once attributed to J. S. Bach himself (BWV Anh. 177), is complex enough to have been his composition, and it is uncertain which of several Johann Christophs could have written it. The intricate inner lines of the prelude may indicate a later date of composition, and the deliberate fugue that has a descending chromatic line is cautious enough to have been an earlier, more conservative work, so it is anyone’s guess who actually wrote it. Johann Pachelbel, of course, needs no further introduction, given that his execrable canon has become ubiquitous, but here he is credited with a Fugue in C Major that is quite livelier than some of his other contrapuntal works. It practically spins off the disc, and the sequencing is particularly effective; too bad that it is so short, barely a couple of minutes in length.
His colleague at the court of Saxon-Weissenfels, Johann Krieger, was a sort of Mr. Music of the region, making it a habit of performing local composers in his concerts. But he was by no means a slouch when it came to his own works, especially in the realm of the cantata. His giant Passacaglia in D Minor is a keyboard tour de force, beginning with simple chords and expanding out until the theme unravels in a series of virtuoso flourishes before falling back into the homophonic opening theme, ending as simply as it began. His other work is a set of variations on a chorale tune, which demostrates a flexible and inventive improvisatory style that offers some rather strange chromatic harmony at points. The tombeau for King Carl XI of Sweden by Christian Ritter (1645-1717) is a poignant lament, while the short prelude by Louis Marchand (1669-1732) might have little connection, save that it appears in one of the manuscript books from which these selections have been for the most part drawn. It is a rather commonplace work, more German than French but certainly nothing that might distinguish itself. The Johann Fischer (1656-1746) sample is drawn from one of his keyboard suites, and while the Prelude is suitable improvisatory with antiphonal effects of the instrument, the Chaconne is quite unmistakably French, sounding for all the world like it could have been taken from one of Francois Couperin’s Ordres.
The entire disc ends with the oft-recorded E-Major Suite by Handel that ends with his theme and variations, often titled “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” The mood for this suite changes considerably. Gone is the contrapuntal complexity, replaced with a more melodious set of movements. To be sure, the opening Prelude still has the same imitative sequences, but these seem to appear without complexity. In the Courante, a lighter registration makes it feel more dance-like, and of course then is a bit more depth to the Allemande. The final variations are done in full-voice style, creating a fit ting ending to a most enjoyable disc.
The playing by harpsichordist Terence Charlston is adept at finding just the right tempos for this program. He also has some lovely registrations (all within the compass of his reconstructed instrument, of course), and I like his sense of phrasing in which the counterpoint is clear and unhurried and the dances unfold without haste or undue rhythmic distortion. His performance provides a bit over an hour of fine entertainment of the sort that one might believe would appeal to Bach and his extended musical family. This is one disc that would be a delight to have, unpretentious and well performed.