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Ever since I reviewed Aapo Häkkinen’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Fanfare 33:3, and interviewed him one issue later in 33:4, he has been at the top of my list of musical and intellectual elites when it comes to today’s harpsichordists. He does nothing that isn’t informed by a scholarly approach to historical period practice, yet his musical instincts are unerring.
Bach has been a staple of Häkkinen’s repertoire, and here, on this new Naxos release, he gives us what looks to be from the headnote a sweeping-up of odds and ends from Bach’s workbench of practice exercises and studies, some of which play for less than a minute. So, let’s take a minute to see what we actually have here.
Bach’s keyboard works are grouped into two major classifications: works for organ and works for keyboard instruments other than organ, mainly harpsichord, but also clavichord and lute-harpsichord, the latter designated for the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E♭ Major, BWV 998, which is still classified under Chamber Works as a piece for lute. Within the second classification, the works are sub-grouped according to genus; 14 categories in all cover the Inventions (BWV 772–786), the Sinfonias (BWV 787–801), and so on, all the way through Variations and Miscellaneous Pieces (BWV 988–994).
I realize this was a bit of a digression, but it was necessary to sort out all of the little pieces that Häkkinen has put together for this program. While almost all of the individual pieces are quite short, three of the works, namely, the three suites, BWV numbers 832, 818, and 819, are cumulatively longer by virtue of their being comprised of a sequence of typical Baroque dance movements. These three suites, however, stand alone, outside the collections of French and English Suites and Partitas which were published as composite sets.
As far as is known, the eight little preludes Häkkinen has programmed, all of which fall under the category of stand-alone preludes encompassed within BWV numbers 921–943, are fugue-less; and the three little fugues, all of which fall under the category of stand-alone fugues and fughettas encompassed within BWV numbers 944–962, are prelude-less. It’s tempting to try to pair them, but the only two pairings that would work would be the Prelude in C Minor, BWV 934, with the Fugue in C Minor, BWV 961, and the Prelude in C Major, BWV 933 with the Fugue in C Major, BWV 952. The remaining stand-alone fugue in A Minor has no corresponding prelude in that key. Wisely, I think, Häkkinen has avoided the possible associations by widely separating the individual preludes and fugues on the program so as not to suggest that Bach intended them as conjugal couples.
Of the four preludes and fugues on the recording that are bonded pairs, only BWV numbers 895 and 896 are identified as a prelude and fugue; numbers 899 and 900 are formally identified as preludes and fughettas. All four, however, do fall under the fairly large genus of Preludes, Fugues, Fughettas, and Toccatas, BWV 846–962.
That leaves the Capriccio in honorem Johann Christoph Bachii, Fantasia duobus subjectis, and Fantasia sur Rondeau. The Johann Christoph of the Capriccio’s title was Bach’s eldest brother, who took him in after his parents died. Despite the work’s high BWV number, it’s believed to date to from no later than about 1700, when Bach was still in his teens. That would make sense, given that his older brother took responsibility for the boy’s guardianship. In any case, the piece is an early example of Bach’s putting into practice what he had learned of the Italian “stylus phantasticus,” a free-form, improvisational style characterized by sudden virtuosic bursts of often bizarre harmonic progressions. The slightly later Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, BWV 992, and, of course, the most flamboyantly eccentric example of all, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, belong to this category. Depending on which source you read, the Fantasia duobus subjectis is either one theme with two countersubjects (Robert Hill) or two themes which share the same countersubject (Ivo Janssen). In either case, it’s a two-and-a-half-minute study in the type of invertible counterpoint that would come to inform Bach’s later works. The Fantaisie sur Rondo, in just two parts, dates from around 1730, and is written in the form of a polonaise.
To quote from Naxos’s album note, “The harpsichord heard on this recording was built by Frank Rutkowski and Robert Robinette in 1970 and belonged to Igor Kipnis until his death in 2002. It is based on the Johann Adolph Hass in the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, the latest and most sophisticated surviving Hass double-manual harpsichord. The original has 1x16’, 2x8’, 1x4’, 1x2ʼ, and buff stops for the upper manual 8ʼ and for the 16’. The compass is five octaves, FF to f3. The natural keys are of wood with tortoise shell veneer; the sharp keys are of ebony veneered with ivory. The lid painting is dated 1761. On the soundboard is the inscription, ʻJ. A. Hass Hamb. Anno 1710,’ of which the third digit has been retouched; it must originally have read 1760. In the Rutkowski & Robinette, the original 2ʼ has been replaced by a peau de buffle register with leather plectra.”
To those who love the harpsichord but on whom much of this technical jargon is lost—and that would include me—what matters most is the sound of the instrument; and on that score, the Rutkowski/Robinette harpsichord is a magnificent-sounding machine. Equally magnificent is Häkkinen’s playing of it. He takes advantage of the full spectrum of the instrument’s range of stops and colors, from the bell-like chiming in the opening A-Minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 896, to the thunderous bass tones in the other A-Minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 895.
Admittedly, not all of the pieces command equal interest. Some are Bach’s early exercises in counterpoint, while others, though later and displaying the composer’s full mastery, were probably intended for the purpose of instructing others in the art of preluding, fuguing, and keyboard technique. Nonetheless, Häkkinen devotes the fullness of his artistry to every piece on the program, investing the least of them with as much musical imagination and insight as he does the best of them.
by no means the first to offer a program of these works. The aforementioned
Robert Hill, as well as Richard Egarr, Masaaki Suzuki, Christoph Rousset,
Léon Berben, and the late Igor Kipnis, have put together similar though not
identically programmed recordings of these Bach harpsichord pieces, but none
that I’ve heard is better than this one by Aapo Häkkinen. Strongly