Harpsichord & Fortepiano

This CD offers a very well-chosen selection of 14 pieces from the late 17 th and early 18 th century, associated with the early years of Bach and Handel – some of the pieces may well have been studied by these illustrious names in their formative years – as well as pieces they themselves composed. Some of the composers will be familiar, others far less so, with nine different genres featured on the CD ranging from prelude, fantasia, fugue, toccata, suite to chorale variations and a tombeau. All are taken from sources compiled by members of Bach’s circle, primarily the Gerber, Walther, Andreas Bach and Möller MSS, or within the geographic area such as the Mylau MS. All are played on a fascinating instrument, a reconstruction by David Evans of the surprisingly little-known single manual instrument now in the Bachhaus, Eisenach – an example of local building that would probably have been known to both Bach and Handel and a most important resource with which to explore the native music of the time, possessing two 8ft stops, pitch of A=440, and tuned according to either Temperament Ordinaire (Bavington) with, in some cases, lowered D#, A# C and F, or Hamburg temperament (Drake).

The opening piece is the Toccata in E minor by J.S.Bach, in which a three-section prelude including a rhapsodic final section, leads to a fugue with a typically driving semiquaver subject comprising triads and diminished seventh intervals, played here with verve and panache. This is followed by the two- movement Suite no. 8 by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, a popular piece found in several MSS including John Blow’s Elizabeth Edgeworth’s keyboard Book, as well as in Fischer’s published collection “Les pièces de clavecin” of 1696 (renamed Musicalisches Blumenbüschlein in 1698). The opening Prelude is in three sections, a central section of massive chords marked Harpeggiando framed by toccata-like movements, Terence Charlston rising ably to the formidable challenges posed with consummate digital dexterity, whilst the following chaconne is based on the descending major tetrachord; both movements may contain hints of numerical symbolism, and other “mysteries” in the chaconne’s central section in the minor. Terence Charlston offers some moments of neatly applied rhythmic inequality in this French style piece and captures the playfulness and wit of the major sections as well as the more introspectively serious moments of the central section. The French style was also of great interest to the young Bach, and we hear next the Prelude to the first of two suites published by Louis Marchand in 1702, although it is carefully notated, Terence Charlston offers a flexible yet not over-free performance.

Numerical symbolism may also have been behind the next piece, Johann Philipp Krieger’s Passacaglia in D minor , the longest and most complex played on this recording, starting slowly and working up to cascades of small-value notes in over 200 3/1 bars. The unfolding variations on the harmonic pattern flow almost effortlessly from Terence Charlston’s fingers in this exciting work, and we scarcely realise that over 10 minutes has elapsed. The fast repeated notes in the treble throughout one variation, runs in thirds and the two variations with very rapid passages in the bass are negotiated with careful phrasing, and the explosion of chords marked arpeggio in the penultimate statement bring the work to a most satisfying conclusion – what a pity that only three pieces by this supremely gifted composer seem to have survived. A short Fantasia in G minor by J.S.Bach opens with a flourish and then settles into a stately there-voice piece built on two contrasting motifs. The chorale variations on In dich habe ich gehoffet Herr by the younger Johann Krieger (Handel is known to have used his published collections as teaching pieces in England) are excellent examples of the strophic setting of a hymn playable with or without pedals, popular with the central and South German composers, in this case the melody is heard in the soprano in the outer variations and in the bass in the central variation. The following Allemande in C minor by Christian Ritter was subtitled in descessum Caroli xi Regis Sveciae, and is an example of a tombeau or memorial piece, here given an eloquently moving performance which captures the grief at the death of the composer’s patron.

A prelude and fugue in Eb attributed to Johann Christoph Bach is given a robust performance with some very neat arpeggiation at the close of the free prelude, and the chromatic nature of the fugue subject also sounds very interesting in the chosen tuning. Two pieces from the Mylau Tablaturbuch (which does lack any known link to Bach or Handel) are heard next, including a short fugue in C with a semiquaver subject attributed to Pachelbel on stylistic grounds, followed by a Capriccio Cromatico by Tarquinio Merula, an intense piece, the subject of which rises through a ninth by semitones.

A short prelude in A , by J.S.Bach, which has an insistently dotted upper part over equal quavers, is followed by a set of four variations on Nun komm der Heiden Heiland , one of three sets on this hymn by Handel’s teacher in Halle, Friedrich Zachow, the chorale being heard first in the treble, then with semiquaver figuration in the treble, chords in treble over figuration in bass and finally in the bass before a recapitulation of the chorale to finish. After a short prelude by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor at Leipzig, the first movement of Partie V from his 1689 publication “Neue Clavierübung, erster Theil”, here played using the buff stop to charming effect, the final work on the CD is the well-known suite in E by Handel, comprising a solidly Germanic prelude, an allemande, a courante, with the concluding Air known as the Harmonious Blacksmith and its increasingly brilliant variations here given an exciting ringing performance of controlled virtuosity.

The booklet provides a comprehensive discussion of how the pieces for the CD were selected and an overview of the sources, the composers and the music, with useful footnotes on source locations, a discussion of German harpsichords of the Baroque period and of the original instrument, design and qualities of this modern reconstruction by David Evans, and the tunings used for specific tracks. There is also a biography of this most accomplished performer and of the instrument maker. The front cover features a greatly enlarged detail of a painting of a Dutch Interior, either by or after Caspar Netscher, which is reproduced in full on the back cover. The standard of playing throughout is of the highest quality with some tastefully added ornamentation and suitably varied articulation to add character to the pieces. This CD is highly recommended, not only because of the interesting selection of pieces and the exceptionally high performance standard but also because of the fascinating and successful matching of the repertoire with the instrument enabling us to perhaps hear the pieces at a far closer remove than on the later German instruments. Terence Charlston is to be commended for his attention to historical detail in both his scrupulous research into performance practice and to his ongoing quest to play the music on instrument which is as close as possible to what the composers themselves may well have known.

—John Collins