BACH: Inventions and Sinfonias BWV 772-801 – Peter Watchorn, harpsichord – Musica Omnia mo0208, 57:07 ***:
As I listened to Peter Watchorn’s steady, ever-so-delicately nuanced reading of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions, I came to the conclusion that great though this music is, it’s more enjoyable to play than to listen to. I doubt that that’s the reaction Watchorn hoped to elicit, but there it is. I certainly agree with the harpsichordist: Bach’s Inventions is not a dry-as-dust exercise in pedagogy. If it were, I would have about as fond memories of it as I have of Karl Czerny’s necessary-evil exercises. Instead, I rank the Inventions with the Well-Tempered Clavier; to me, they’re equally fine and important. So why didn’t I get a charge out of Watchorn’s interpretation?
Watchorn makes much of Bach’s stated aim that the Inventions would not merely teach the art of careful obbligato playing but of cantabile playing. To that end, the harpsichordist plays “in an essentially ‘vocal’ manner: making breaks where a singer would take breaths, yet never adding gratuitous punctuation for its own sake.” He also chooses mostly moderate tempos, so he says, because “Bach’s complex counterpoint requires more time than is usually given to it in order to speak and make its full impact.”
Thus Watchorn is among recent purveyors of Bach who seem to want to retire the image of the master as a high-powered counterpoint generator—in Colette’s famous phrase, “cette divine machine à coudre” (“this divine sewing machine”). At least Watchorn doesn’t lovingly and painfully sculpt every single phrase as Richard Egarr does in his recent traversal of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Harmonia Mundi), but still, one man’s moderate is another man’s just too pokey. A keyboardist doesn’t need to adopt the juggernaut tempos of Janos Sebestyen (Naxos, on piano) or Richard Troeger (Lyrichord, on clavichord) to make this music exciting, but played as slowly as Watchorn plays many of these pieces, the Inventions lack a sense of momentum and sound dry, less than inspired, despite his avowed aim to take them beyond the realm of mere pedagogy. The question, I suppose, is for whom does Bach’s counterpoint require “more time than is usually given to it. . .to. . .make its full impact”? the audience or the performer? I assure you I can handle a speedier tempo than is Watchorn’s norm and not feel shortchanged in the least.
Watchorn’s notes to the recording are a treasure trove of information about Bach’s tuning scheme and the lovely-sounding dual-manual harpsichord he plays (built by Alastair McAllister and modeled on an early eighteenth-century instrument of Johann Heinrich Harraß). Besides the apologia for Watchorn’s style of Bach playing, the notes include a blow-by-blow analysis of each of the thirty Inventions and Sinfonias. For the student, this would probably be a very fine album to get to know, both for the careful playing and the detailed scholarship. For the average music lover, however, there is less to love.
– Lee Passarella