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GRAMOPHONE (08/2020)
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DG 4838436  

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Reviewer: Jed Distler

Because Trevor Pinnock’s solo harpsichord forays are few and far between these days, it’s easy to forget just what a superb player he was, and still is, judging from his first complete recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. In a press release Pinnock cited the singing quality of his instrument, modelled after the Franco-German builder Henri Hemsch, along with the registral clarity that allows Bach’s part-writing its due. He’s absolutely right. The close-lying lines in the C major and A minor Fugues register with total success, for example. Nor do the C minor, C sharp, G major and B flat Preludes’ busy textures blur, although one misses the colourful timbral variety inherent in the late Kenneth Gilbert’s recording (Archiv, 9/84). Even Pinnock’s occasional use of octave couplings (the B flat major Fugue) sounds discreetly effective and not heavily upholstered. What is more, Pinnock is a direct and straightforward player. He avoids the exaggerated articulation and agogic mannerisms that way too many periodinstrument practitioners deem stylish. Listen to the subtle lift in the C minor and E major Fugue subjects, the conversational give-and-take of the C sharp minor Prelude’s phrase-shaping or the way the D major Prelude’s motoric right-hand lines manage to convey a sense of air in between the notes. The latter applies to Pinnock’s gently jaunty A flat major Prelude as well. There’s a sense of line in the G sharp minor Fugue subject’s repeated notes that’s easier to conceive than to execute.

Pinnock particularly shines when he imbues a Prelude and Fugue coupling with distinctive characters. A good example of this can be found in his laid-back yet winsomely pointed A major Prelude, which is followed by a brashly upbeat reading of the Fugue in the same key. The F sharp minor Prelude emerges less like a keyboard exercise and more like a dance movement, just as the ricercare-like nature of its companion Fugue in the same key inspires a vocally informed interpretation.

Knowing Pinnock’s sensitive and involving traversals of the Goldberg Variations’ minor-key movements, the Italian Concerto’s Adagio and the spacious Sarabandes from his second and superior recording of the Partitas, I expected more from Book 1’s monumental pieces. The E flat major Prelude and Fugue are surprisingly sober and matter-of-fact,

while I’ve rarely heard such a clunky rendition of the sublime B flat minor Prelude, together with Pinnock’s ponderously dispatched C sharp minor and B minor Fugues. For this reason, my harpsichord Book 1 first choices remain the aforementioned Gilbert, the warmth of spontaneity of Céline Frisch’s edition (Alpha, 4/16) and the hard-to-source yet profoundly rewarding Blandine Verlet (Naïve) and Davitt Moroney (Harmonia Mundi, 4/89). Still, Pinnock’s best work deserves respect and attention, and if Book 2 looms on the horizon, I hope I’ll be here to listen.

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