Pieces from a composer’s formative years generally receive far less attention than those from his ‘maturity’. The reason may be that the latter are considered better than the former. Such a view is basically unhistorical: it is impossible to compare music from different periods in music history, by composers of different generations or even from different stages in a composer’s career. Obviously the likes of Bach and Handel were born with talents, but these had to develop. They had to hone their skills, just like every other human being. In the baroque period they did so by studying and playing the music which was circulating in their early years, or music from earlier stages in history which were collected in printed editions or – mostly – handwritten copies.
Some of the composers who were among the major sources of inspiration of Johann Sebastian Bach are well-known, such as Georg Böhm and Dietrich Buxtehude. In comparison Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the only formal teacher of George Frideric Handel, is hardly known at all and badly represented on disc. He is part of the programme which Terence Charlston has put together in which he investigates which music was played and/or studied in the early years of both Bach and Handel. We know several sources which can be connected to Bach. Among them the Möller Manuscript and the Andreas Bach Book are especially well-known. Pieces from these collections have found their way into various recordings. They were put together by Johann Christoph, Johann Sebastian’s elder brother with whom he lived after the death of his parents.
He is not the composer of the Prelude and fugue in E flat (BWV Anh 177) , but as the title refers to Eisenach it is likely that this is from the Johann Christoph who for most of his life worked in that town as organist and who has left a considerable number of motets and sacred concertos as well as organ works. The subject of the fugue includes some chromaticism.
Charlston also turned to some lesser-known sources. The Royal Conservatoire in Brussels owns a source of English origin, known as the Wagener manuscript , which includes the Passacaglia in d minor by Johann Philipp Krieger. The anonymous Fugue in C , which has been attributed to Pachelbel on stylistic grounds, is from the so-called Mylau Tablature Book which includes pieces by composers from across Germany. In his liner-notes he mentions several other important sources from Central Germany which he has not used but give much information about the kind of repertoire circulating among keyboard players and composers.
The nice thing about this disc is that Charlston has mostly included pieces which don’t figure on every disc with music from the early stages of Bach’s career. It makes sense that the programme opens with one of the toccatas by Bach which date from that time and which reflect the influence of the North German organ school. Louis Marchand’s Prélude in d minor refers to the French influence in Bach’s keyboard oeuvre. Merula represents the Italian style, and considering the year of his death it is notable that the Capriccio cromatico has been found in the Mylau Tablature Book . The copy in this source is incomplete; a complete version has been found in another German source of the same period.
Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer is another composer who is little-known but clearly inspired Bach. The latter composed his Wohltemperirtes Clavier under the impression of Fischer’s Ariadne Musica , a collection of preludes and fugues in all the keys. Fischer was one of those composers who composed orchestral music in the French style. The Suite VIII in G is from the Musicalisches Blumen-Büschlein of 1696 and was included in the Andreas Bach Book . It comprises two movements: the prelude includes a number of chords up to seven notes, which are required to be arpeggiated. This piece is reminiscent of the prélude non mesuré of the French harpsichord school but ends with a fugal section which refers to the North German organ school. The second movement is a chaconne which – according to the Dutch organist Piet Kee – is based on number symbolism. Charlston includes a useful summary of Kee’s views in his liner-notes. Fischer’s harpsichord works reflect his attempts to mix German and French elements. Inspiration of French music also comes to the fore in the Allemande in descessum Caroli xi Regis Sveciae by Christian Ritter. It is a tombeau for King Charles XI of Sweden who died in 1697. From 1688 to 1699 Ritter worked at the court in Stockholm.
The Kriegers were highly respected figures in German music life. Johann Philipp Krieger has become mainly known for his sacred music; his chamber music is also sometimes played. Unfortunately only a handful of keyboard works has survived; one of them is the monumental Passacaglia in d minor (here taking 11 minutes) whose bass pattern – a sequence of six descending notes – appears 43 times. There are some similarities with Handel in that Krieger also went to Italy to expand his horizon. There is an explicit connection between Handel and Krieger’s younger brother Johann. He published two collections of keyboard music and when Handel went to London a copy of the Anmuthige Clavier-Übung of 1698 was in his baggage. On several occasions he made use of musical material from Krieger’s works in his own compositions.
Handel himself is represented with his best-known harpsichord suite which closes with the so-called ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ variations which clearly inspired the title of this disc. It was part of a collection of eight suites published in 1720, but exists in earlier versions which may date from Handel’s time in Halle. It is a little disappointing that Charlston plays the version of 1720 rather than one of the earlier versions, especially as these are hardly known. Such a version would also better fit the character of the present programme.
It is nice that one piece by Zachow is included. I would have liked more of them, especially one of the free works as his chorale arrangements are the better-known part of his oeuvre. A more thorough investigation of his output is long overdue.
There is one particular aspect which makes this disc even more interesting. Charlston plays the copy of an anonymous Thuringian harpsichord from around 1715, made by David Evans. The original is preserved in the Bachhaus in Eisenach and was restored in 1975. It is strung in iron and brass and has one manual. “Such an instrument would have been played at home and in church and it is very likely that Bach and Handel’s first experience of plucked keyboards was on an instrument of this type rather than the later, more sophisticated instruments they came to know in their subsequent careers”, Charlston states in his liner-notes. The sound is more penetrating than that of later instruments and is quite close to that of 17th-century Italian instruments.
This is a very interesting recording which combines a compelling programme with a rather unusual sound from an intriguing instrument and an inspired and incisive interpretation. Everyone interested in Bach and/or Handel and their world should investigate this disc. The harpsichord used here should give food for thought as far as the choice of keyboard instruments is concerned.