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New CDs from Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr

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Schubert, Violin Sonatas, A. Manze, R. Egarr
(released on October 9, 2007)
Part of the reason that we were able to hear Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr in an excellent duo recital earlier this week was that they are promoting their new CD of early Schubert violin sonatas. Played on two 19th-century instruments, the sound is much fuller and more incisive, the violin especially (Pierre Pacherelle, Nice, 1834), than what we heard in the recital. The four sonatas selected were all changed from their original title of sonata to smaller genres like sonatina or duo, and none was published during Schubert's lifetime. They are not exactly juvenilia -- the term means little with a composer like Schubert, who was so startlingly prolific and simultaneously short-lived -- and Manze and Egarr are hardly rescuing these pieces from obscurity (although no earlier recording of these pieces has made much of an impact on me).

Some of the tracks that have merited repeated listening are the slow movement of D. 384 and the last movement of D. 408 (both noted in the review of the recital, too). One wishes that Manze and Egarr had chosen the A minor sonata, D. 385, although it was probably too long and also requires forceful playing possibly not a good match for the instruments heard at Clarice Smith. Especially its melancholy first movement, with enigmatic big melodic leaps, is worthwhile. Many aspects of the fast movements especially bring the young Schubert into comparison with Beethoven, the clever, quick scherzo of D. 574 and melodies consisting of short rhythmic motifs. The value of this disc is in those historic instruments and in the sensibilities of the performers, both major figures in the British historically informed performance movement who have been playing together for years. A truly authentic performance is nearly impossible -- even a baroqueux nut like me admits that -- but this disc gets to the historical heart of these works.

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907445

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Bach, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, vol. 1, R. Egarr (harpsichord)
(released on October 9, 2007)
The real test, one might say, of Bradley Lehman's recently proposed theory of precisely what tempered tuning J. S. Bach used for his own harpsichord would be how it sounds on the work intended to demonstrate it, the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. That is, the theoretical bravura of that set of pieces, a prelude and fugue for each major and minor key in each volume, is that it would expose the wolf tunings on an instrument without the right tempering. Richard Egarr writes in his liner essay for his new recording of Book I of the WTC that Prof. Lehman's theory has
now been thrown around the Internet and hugely debated, resulting in the seemingly inevitable opposing camps of believers and non-believers.
I am a believer.
WTC on Piano:

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Angela Hewitt

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Till Fellner

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Glenn Gould
One may think that yours truly is contained within that elliptical phrase "around the Internet," as I have expressed doubts about the theory, not about its plausibility but about the possibility of actually proving it without more explicit evidence. Ultimately, it matters little: Egarr uses Lehman's tuning, and the 1991 Joel Katzman harpsichord, a copy of a 17th-century Ruckers instrument from 1638, sounds beautiful. The warm sound, captured in Haarlem's Doopsgezinde Kerk, preserves more tone than mechanical action, but enough of the latter to add excitement to the texture (one odd loss of background sound occurs at 2:12 of track 8 on the second CD, but that may be an anomaly). As noted of some of Egarr's other recordings, his pace can be leisurely and the hesitations in some of the moto perpetuo type of preludes (C major and C minor, to name a couple) border on cloying. Egarr uses individualistic articulation and timing to good effect, however, in distinguishing voices from one another in the fugues.

Not being the sort of person who could settle for only one recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, it is hard to compare apples and oranges with all of the recordings available. If forced to live with only one recording, as with the Goldberg Variations, it would have to be harpsichord for me. The title indicates, as Egarr notes, that Bach's intention, if one can be discerned at all, is that the pieces could be played by any keyboard instrument. To my ear, it sounds the best on the harpsichord, but there are several fine recordings on modern piano (those by Hewitt, Fellner, and Gould, listed at left, are my favorites). Good recordings on older instruments include Kenneth Gilbert on harpsichord and Ralph Kirkpatrick on clavichord, not so much Wanda Landowska on harpsichord (of historical interest, but not great listening). On the basis of Céline Frisch's Goldberg Variations recording, my current favorite, the possibility of her take on the WTC is most tantalizing. Until then, Egarr's version has my ear.

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907431.32


Anonymous said...

Hi Charles, I was at that Clarice Smith concert Sunday (Mozart and Schubert sonatas) too. Too bad we didn't know each other was there, or we could have chatted a bit afterward!

I notice your comment here about the end of the G minor fugue, in Egarr's recording, having a strange shift of acoustic. Yes, I noticed that too listening to the set half a dozen times over the past several weeks. I wasn't sure if it was a manufacturing defect on my copy, or just a bad edit in the production; but you've confirmed that it's probably the latter. It sounds to me as if they brought in part of a take from a different microphone setup. Anyway, it's just a briefly disconcerting spot within a set that is excellent overall. I was going to ask Egarr about it on Sunday, but then we were conversing about some more interesting things and I forgot. :)

If you're looking for some additional recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier using this tuning, Egarr's is actually the third one already! My own disc "Playing from Bach's fancy" has five of the preludes/fugues (C, B, F minor, F# minor, Bb minor) and my organ set "A joy forever" has the Eb major played on organ.

Then shortly after that, Peter Watchorn's magnificent set of the entire book 1 has been available since June 2006 -- played on a big German pedal harpsichord. It seems even more appropriate to the music, tonally, than Egarr's Flemish/Ruckers does.... (My own was on a Flemish, too, with a yet brighter/steelier sound than Egarr's.) The warmth of Watchorn's performance, his instrument's tone, and the recorded fidelity all make his the one I'd choose for the desert island...if compelled to pick only one. But why pick only one? Interestingly, all three of these have been done at different basic pitch: mine at A=440, Watchorn's at 415, and Egarr's at about 392.

I have all of these CDs listed for reference at the page:

The next one to get, later this month, is Robert Hill's disc of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach!

Watchorn just finished his sessions of the inventions/sinfonias in September, and then he's on to do book 2 of the Well-Tempered in 2008. I'm eager to hear it! A direct link to Watchorn's work as both player and producer:

I've been playing through book 2 myself, of course, for enjoyment. What better way to start a day?

Bradley Lehman

Charles T. Downey said...

Hi Bradley,

Thanks for the wonderful and informative comment. I am so sorry to discover that you were at that concert, as it would have been great to meet you. I am also sorry to hear that the sound glitch on that track is not limited to my copy of the Egarr disc. I agree that it is still a worthy recording.

PS Sorry for adding an extra n to your last name, too. Now corrected!