J. S. BACH: Oeuvres pour clavier (Keyboard Works) – Hank Knox, harpsichord – Early-Music.com

J. S. BACH: Oeuvres pour clavier (Keyboard Works) [TrackList follows] – Hank Knox, harpsichord – Early-Music.com, 56:53 (8/27/13) ****:

This stand-alone disc represents a wide variety of the works J.S.Bach would have played throughout his life, from the early Toccata in E minor to the Musical Offering of 1747 (just three years before he died).

The instrument is an interesting one. A 1982 model built by Richard Kingston, based on a model by Dulcken, it has a distinctively Flemish sound, most notably a beautiful sense of resonance – spruce (the favoured wood in the Flemish School) was known for its sonority, allowing the harpsichord to hold its own, even in an orchestral setting. This, coupled with a clean tone and swift action make for a very pleasant instrument indeed. The sound isn’t as rich as I would like (I prefer a number of contemporaneous instruments from the French School), but that is purely a matter of personal taste. It is a beautiful instrument. However, I am quite surprised a French harpsichord was not used, especially seeing as this recording was made in Quebec!

The Church of Saint-Augustin-de-Mirabel in Quebec appears to be a most wonderful choice of venue – the acoustic is unintrusive and does not interfere with the sound in any way, allowing the harpsichord to come into its own and show off its sophisticated abilities. This is something that the production/engineering team has taken into account very well. Clarion Productions have been spot on in their recording of this disc – a very clear pickup and the right distance of the equipment form the instrument allowed me not only to enjoy the music, but also the honest and clean acoustic the building has to offer.

From the beginning it was clear that Knox is a very accomplished player. He takes the instrument’s clean tone and delicate (but firm) registers, and puts them to excellent use in a performance that is well-weighted, nuanced and consummately musical throughout, the expertly executed counterpoint highlighted further by the instrument’s better qualities. Large sections of the music are rooted in improvisation (for example, the Toccata in E Minor and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue), and Knox’s playing, which is free but never losses focus, keeps the listener on their toes and musically engaged (which is just how improvisation ought to make one feel!).

I found the Musical Offering to be very interesting indeed. An offering to one of Europe’s most powerful and influential Enlightenment rulers, Frederick the Great, the piece is cleverly planned not only to be musical and stylish, but also ordered, logical and precise, all hallmarks of Enlightenment thinking. The instrument responds to this precision very well – each detailed line of music is crystal clear to the ear, but one never loses sight of the piece as a whole.

It was wonderful to see an Ouverture in the French style on this disc, especially seeing as I had just listened to and reviewed an absolutely superb disc of French harpsichord music from the age of Louis XIV. The French spirit of the music was captured well, making for a fine suite of music full of contrasting moods and colours I must say that a delightful highlight for me was the final movement, ‘Echo’, as Knox made full use of the harpsichord registers to create a very real echo effect – beautiful!

This disc is a very nice selection and presentation of works from one of history’s most distinguished composers. Wonderfully executed in an engaging and meaningful way, it is well worth a listen!

TrackList:

1. Toccata e-moll (BWV 914)
([Vivace], Un poco Allegro, Adagio, Fuga (Allegro)

Chromatische Fantasie und Fuge, d-moll (BWV 903)
2. Fantasia – Recitativ
3. Fuga
4. Fantasie c-moll (BWV 906)
5. Ricercar a 3 (Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079, Leipzig, 1747)

 Ouverture nach Französischer Art, BWV 831
(Clavier-Übung II, Leipzig, 1735)

6. Ouverture
7. Courante
8. Gavottes I & II
9. Passepieds I & II
10. Sarabande
11. Bourrées I & II
12. Gigue
13. Echo

—Jake Barlow

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