Krebs: Keyboard Works Vol 1

Johann Ludwig Krebs: Keyboard Works Vol 1
Steven Devine, harpsichord
Resonus Classics RES10287. 72’0

Partita in A minor, Krebs-WV 825
Fugues in C major, E major, F major, F minor, G major, and A minor, Krebs-WV 843/848
Concerto in G major “in Italiänischen Gusto”, Krebs-WV 821

Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) is another of those overlooked composers, despite there being a large amount of surviving music. He is probably best known as Bach’s favourite organ pupil, and the focus (reflected in the CD cover photo) of Bach’s comment Er ist der einzige Krebs in meinem Bache – “He is the only crayfish (Krebs) in my brook (Bach)”, a reference to Krebs’ ability as an organist, rather than being the only Krebs pupil as Bach also taught Krebs’ father. His music falls into a slightly awkward gap between the High Baroque style of late Bach and the new Galant and Classical styles that rendered much of ‘Old Bach’s’ music out of date.

One thing that does need clearing up is that, despite the title of the CD, this four-disc series only represents a part of Krebs keyboard music. The programme note essay gives a far more accurate title of ‘Works for Harpsichord Volume 1’. And, unless there are at least two more than four CDs in this series, it will not cover the complete works for harpsichord. The organ works fill at least 7 full-sized CDs, never mind the vocal and instrumental music. Many of Kreb’s organ pieces show a direct Bach influence, often to a specific piece that Krebs then expands, often to enormous length and complexity. That is far less apparent in the harpsichord works on this recording, although Bach links are fairly easy to spot, for example in the Fuga of the opening A minor Partite with its expanding chromatic sequence reflecting Bach’s large scale organ ‘Wedge’ Fugue. The preceding free-form Fantasia also shares similarities with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia.

This recording from Steven Devine gives a very welcome chance to experience Krebs in, arguably, a more reflective mood, with pieces intended for a domestic harpsichord or clavichord, rather than his grand pieces for organ or organ and instruments. Incidentally, the Trost organ that Krebs played during his time as court organist to the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg still exists in the Schlosskirche of Altenburg, Thuringia.

The well-balanced programme sandwiches six Fugues between a Partita and a Concerto ‘in the Italian style’. The opening A minor Partita is performed from a manuscript by Kittel, a fellow Bach student, and seems to represent later revisions to Krebs’s autograph manuscript. It demonstrates his hovering between Baroque and Galant styles, the former genre apparent in the Fantasia, Fugue and the expansive Sarabande; the latter in the other dance movements Allemande, Bourrée, Pastorelle, Menuett and Gigue

.Anybody put off by the idea of listening to six Fugues in a row need have no fear – they are all delightfully contrasting pieces that just happen to be composed in fugal form. Stephen Devine’s exploration of the different sounds of the harpsichord is apparent. The concluding G major Concerto is firmly in the post-Baroque style. It contrasts jovially virtuosic outer movements with a more reflective and expansive Andante.

Stephen Devine’s playing is impressive, his gently rhetorical approach to the music revealing inner beauties within the notes. A fine example of playing the music, rather than the notes. The harpsichord is a Colin Booth copy of an early 18th-century instrument by German maker Johann Christof Fleischer. More information can be found here.