Johann Sebastian Bach
Legend has it that once, when he was complimented on his playing, Bach replied: "There is nothing remarkable about it. All you have to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself." In this generous recital, Richard Egarr demonstrates what an understatement that was. He offers deeply satisfying performances of Bach's three best-known keyboard fantasias and fugues, two concertos based on Vivaldi, the Italian Concerto, and the rarely-heard Sonata in A minor based on music by Bach’s idol, Johann Adam Reincken.
In his notes to the recording, Egarr half-apologizes for including works as familiar as the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903) and the Italian Concerto (BWV 971), but he explains that his aim is "to re-engage minds and ears to these great pieces." That he does.
I've always thought that the Chromatic Fantasia, more than any other piece he wrote, gets us close to what Bach must have sounded like when he improvised at the keyboard, for which he was renowned. It’'s Keith Jarrett in a peruke. But when I first listened to Egarr’s rendition, I found it off-putting. Though it’s no faster than other recordings, it felt rushed and had a slightly sinister tinge. The Fantasia’s frequent chromatic sweeps up the scale here almost sounded like harsh slashes across the keys, and Egarr landed some of its chords with percussive force. Here was improvisation that bordered on losing control. But then I read Egarr's notes. He sets the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in the context of recent scholarship by Peter Schleuning, who suggests that Bach wrote both it and the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin to commemorate the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. Suddenly Egarr's take-no-prisoners approach made perfect sense. This is fantasia as angry, sobbing lament. A second (third, fourth, and fifth) listening convinced me: Egarr's interpretation now rises to the top of my choices for the Fantasia. Its controlled fury also very nicely balances the cool thoughtfulness of the accompanying fugue, which is one of Bach’s best and most intellectual.
Though Egarr performs the Italian Concerto with daunting skill, I quibble with some of the rhythmic liberties he takes with the piece, especially in the third movement allegro. Here he frequently inserts an agogic stress on the first of the four repeated notes that complete the run up the scale in the main theme. This creates an ascent that ends in a small stumble. There may be warrant for the effect in eighteenth-century practice, but I find it distracting to the pace of the allegro. On the other hand, he plays the andante with great beauty, and his interpretation of this old standard really does force us to hear it in a fresh way.
Egarr precedes the Italian Concerto with the Concerto in D (BWV 972) and the Concerto in G (BWV 973), both of them Bach’s keyboard transcriptions of two Vivaldi string concertos (RV 230 and RV 299). This is an illuminating way to show how Bach arrived at his own concerto “nach Italiaenischen Gusto.” I listened to the Vivaldi RV 230 just to compare how Bach reduced eight-part string writing to two hands. It's an exercise that really underscores what a genius he had for transcription, for his keyboard version is every bit as rich as Vivaldi’s. Egarr plays both concertos with such staggering virtuosity, that I began to wonder if he has only two hands.
The revelation here is Bach’s Sonata in A minor (BWV 965) adapted from Reincken’s Hortus musicus. Bach was a teenager when he first met Reincken, then in his seventies. (He lived to be 101!) They became friends, and Bach tramped back and forth to Hamburg to hear the master organist play. Written early in his career, the sonata is a 19-minute-long dance suite preceded by an adagio and an elaborate and catching fugue. The several moods of this piece are an excellent demonstration of the range of Egarr's touch and the colors he can coax from the keyboard.
The program includes the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor (BWV 903) and the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 906). The treat here is Egarr's own completion of the C minor fugue, which Bach never finished. In his 2000 biography of Bach, Christoph Wolff calls this fugue "one of his most daring explorations of chromatic counterpoint," so it's a pleasure to have Egarr think through for us where Bach may have been headed. His pen takes over at minute 1'51 of the last track where his "re-working," as he prefers to call it, is seamless and fulfilling.
Throughout this recital, Egarr plays with fearsome yet always lyrical control and a keen ear for the structural intricacy of Bach’s contrapuntal writing. His performances of all the fugues keep the multiple voices distinct; his choices of tempi are thoughtful and persuasive. The modern harpsichord he plays, built in 1991 by Joel Katzman, complements his virtuosity. It has a warm, full-bodied tone that sparkles with crystalline precision. Recorded fairly close, it creates an intimate feeling and sounds spectacular from the lowest to the highest keys.
Lately I've preferred to hear Bach on piano; Egarr has me re-thinking that choice.