Six Partitas for Harpsichord

Six Partitas for Harpsichord

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Clavier Übung 1, BWV 825​-​830 by Malcolm Proud / J. S. Bach

J.S. Bach Clavier Übung Teil I
"Clavir Übung – bestehend in Praeludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden und Giguen, Menuetten und anderen Galanterien; Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertigt von Johann Sebastian Bach, Musikdirektor zu Leipzig, Opus 1.“ Bachs Partiten sind häufig als die großartigste der Suitensammlungen hervorgehoben worden, das barocke Pendant zu Beethovens Klaviersonaten. Dies trifft insofern zu als Bach in Stücken wie der Toccata, Sarabande und Gigue der e-Moll Partita, weit über die Grenzen seiner Zeit hinausgeht, und in seinen expressiven Explorationen genau so radikal ist wie Beethoven in seinen späten Sonaten. Sie gehören zu den höchsten Errungenschaften der Westlichen Kunstmusik.

aus den Liner Notes von David Ledbetter

J.S. Bach Clavier Übung Part I
‘Keyboard Practice consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Menuets, and other galanteries; prepared for the delight of spirit of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach... Director of Music for Leipzig. Opus 1.’ Bach’s Partitas have often been singled out as the greatest of suite collections, the Baroque equivalent of Beethoven’s piano Sonatas. This is true inasmuch as Bach, in such pieces as the Toccata, Sarabande and Gigue of the E minor Partita, goes far beyond the limitations of his time, in expressive explorations every bit as radical as Beethoven in his late Sonatas. They belong with the supreme achievements of western art music.

from the Liner Notes by David Ledbetter


Listening to Malcolm Proud’s excellent rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach: Six partitas for harpsichord, Clavier Übung I, BWV825-830 (Maya MCD1301, rec 2012, 156’) felt very welcoming, almost like coming home. This has, of course, more than one reason. The pieces themselves are indeed very familiar and close to my heart, as is probably true for most keyboard players nowadays. The sound skilfully produced by Proud on a Ruckers copy is very warm, sensitive and versatile, and his interpretation, which generally tends towards reasonable if not moderate tempi, is very tasteful and appropriate, with just the right portioning of ornamentation and variation between repeats. Another reason, though, has to do with the recording technique. The soundstage in this recording is very coherent and the microphones are located and mixed in a way that places the listener at the player’s position, hearing the higher notes from the right and the the lower notes from the left. To a certain extent, the listeners are taken into a virtual reality where they can hear everything from the harpsichordist’s point of view. Being a harpsichordist, I felt very much at home in this setting and was absolutely delighted to experience Malcolm Proud’s angelic playing from this perspective.
(Early Music November 2015)

Bach composed three sets of keyboard suites, culminating in the Partitas. Not only are they more elaborate and technically challenging than the English and French Suites, but they offer both player and listener a more sumptuously rich experience. Furthermore, it is curious that it was the last set of keyboard works he wrote, yet was the first to be published, under his direction, as Clavier-Ubung 1 (keyboard practice). The Partitas were published individually between 1726 and 1730, then together as his Op. 1 in 1731.

There is a trend these days to perform Bach keyboard works almost exclusively on the piano. My familiarity with the Partitas has been almost completely with piano versions by such performers as Gould, Hewitt, Schiff, Perahia, Goode and Tureck though I do possess the Kirkpatrick and Pinnock harpsichord versions. There is a compelling case for authentic performance of these works. After all, the piano was still only in its early stages of development when Bach was around. It was left to his son C.P.E. Bach to realize the piano’s full potential. Hence, the piano and the harpsichord offer a different dimension, and are both equally valid. Some would even argue that the very nature and mechanics of the harpsichord are more conducive to achieving greater precision and clarity in the delineation of the several contrapuntal strands.

Malcolm Proud was born in Dublin. He studied with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. In 1982, he won first prize at the Edinburgh International Harpsichord Competition. Since then he has made an international career, performing in Europe, North America and Japan. He has been associated with the English Baroque Soloists, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the Academy of Ancient Music.

These are very compelling and cultivated performances that Malcolm Proud has on offer. Repeats are observed, and are tastefully ornamented. Articulation and clarity are maintained throughout. The Allemandes of Partitas 1 and 4 were rather slow and ponderous, but otherwise tempi seem comfortable and judiciously chosen. The Ouverture to Partita 4 has a sublime grandeur, and curiously its Sarabande has been inserted between the Courante and the Aria. This proves to be a very effective step, placing a slower movement between two brisk ones, thus creating more of a contrast. The Sarabandes form the emotional core of each work, and Proud renders each with warmth and lyricism. The Gigues have a youthful exuberance and sparkle, and are imbued with energy. All in all, Proud gets to the soul of Bach with these performances.

The harpsichord used in this recording is a copy of a 1624 example by Joannes Ruckers of Antwerp. It was built in 2007 by Kevin Fryer. I was very enamoured of the full-blooded yet bright sound of this instrument. The exceptional richness of timbre adds depth and clarity. The Leuven Institute offers an ideal venue and acoustic. David Ledbetter’s liner-notes set the context admirably. Those who are dubious about the effectiveness of the harpsichord as opposed to the piano in these works, should give these recordings a try. They have certainly won me over and I shall be revisiting them often.
(Stephen Greenbank)

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