Bach: Partitas

J S Bach: Partitas Clavier-Übung I
Menno van Delft, clavichord
Resonus Classics. RES10212. 2 CDs: 59’21+73.49

Clavier-Übung I – Partitas BWV 825-830

Bach’s Six Partitas were published in 1731 under the title of  Clavier-Übung, the first of four publications under that name, culminating in the monumental third and fourth publications, the ‘German Organ Mass’ and the Goldberg Variations, Clavier-Übung VI. Each Partita had been published separately between the years of 1726 and 1730 but seem to have been intended as a combined set of six, as was the pattern of many such musical collections of the time, including Bach’s own preceding English and French Suites. They are the only one of the four Clavier-Übung set that does not specify a particular keyboard instrument, but Menno van Delft makes a convincing argument for the use of a clavichord, the domestic instrument of choice, particularly for organists, rather than a harpsichord.

What is less convincing is his argument for the choice of a clavichord dating from 1784 by Christian Gotthelf Hoffmann, born 8 years after Bach’s death. It is one of only two such instruments surviving and is in the Cobbe Collection in Hatchlands Park, Surrey where the recording was made. The acoustic of the space (I assume it was the Organ/Recital room) supports the gentle sound well without overpowering it. The middle six decades of the 18th-century were a key period in the development of stringed keyboard instruments, particularly the clavichord. Those that Bach knew in 1730 were very different from that of the 1780s. The latter had a much greater range of expression and tone and is far closer to the style that CPE Bach’s compositions were intended for. Although that might put off purists and, I wonder, may have contributed to van Delft’s performing style, Bach’s music rises above such present-day considerations and comes shining through on this recording.

The ‘performing style’ I refer to above is the use of rhetoric and other expressive devices that are usually, but not always correctly, associated with a later period than the Baroque. I have never really accepted that premise and have no doubt that performers of Bach’s day and before would have been alive to the need for the subtlety of pulse and articulation that lifts music from the notes on the page. Menno van Delft uses such devices to impart a delightful insight into Bach’s music, without ever leaving the idiom of Bach’s music which, in these pieces, frequently moves away from the strict Baroque idiom into the forthcoming Rococo style of his sons.

The Six Partitas are not as well known as the earlier French and English Suites, so this is an important recording. Each of the opening movements has a different title and mood, ranging from the simple Praeludium to Ouverture via Sinfonis, Fantasia, Toccata and Praeambulum. The following dance movements, although with matching names, cover a wide range of musical moods, notably with some of the slower Sarabandes

For those not used to the sound of a clavichord, live or in recordings, it is a very quite instrument. This recording respects that, so to get a proper senses of the sound, play a recording you know at its usual volume before playing this – at the same volume. es, it will sound quite, but that is the clavichord sound. Don’t try to listen to it on a train! More information, including a link to the programme notes, can be found here.