Bach: Keyboard Works (CD review)

Hank Knox, harpsichord. Early-Music.com EMCCD-7775.

Hank Knox has been playing the harpsichord for years, enough years to have produced dozens of record albums, toured internationally, and performed with conductors Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, Sir Roger Norrington, and Andrew Parrott, among others. He currently teaches harpsichord and continuo in the Early Music program at McGill University in Montreal, where he also conducts various instrumental and chamber music ensembles including the McGill Baroque Orchestra. But playing the harpsichord doesn’t always make one a rock star, so you may not be entirely familiar with Knox. Now you will be.

On the present album of keyboard works by German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Knox performs a wide and diverse selection of the man’s work, from early to late. I must admit that while I enjoy a good harpsichord accompaniment in chamber and concerto pieces, I am not such a big fan of solo harpsichord music. Still, Knox is a creative and persuasive performer, helping me to rather enjoy what he did, performing on a replica of an eighteenth-century Dulcken harpsichord recreated by Richard Kingston.

Knox begins the program with the Toccata in E-minor, BWV 914, an early work (probably written sometime before 1710, despite its catalogue number). The piece seems fairly well represented on disc (I count about four dozen recordings listed on Amazon, with probably a few dozen more they don’t handle or are out of print), yet it may still be unknown to a lot of listeners. It usually doesn’t get as prominent a position on an album as it does here, most of the time just kind of filling up space. Anyway, it’s in three sections: an introductory Vivace, an Allegro, an Adagio, and a final Allegro in the form of a fugue. Knox plays the entire piece with spirit, but without trying to glamorize or exaggerate the rhythms. Instead, the piece sounds animated, not breathless.

Next up is the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D-minor, BWV 903, in two parts: Fantasia and Fugue. This, if anything, is even more brilliant than the preceding Toccata, with a good deal of elaborate finger work. Knox tells us in a booklet note that Bach had just bought a fancy new harpsichord at the time and may have been trying to show it off. Certainly, Knox shows off the work's ornate passages to good effect.

Then we get the Fantasy in C-minor, BWV 906, in a single movement. Although it's brief at about five minutes, it includes some of the composer's best melodies, sounding quite Romantic, actually, even if played rather more quickly than most performers would have executed it in Bach’s time.

The next selection, the three-part Ricercar a3, is interesting because it's a section of Bach's Musical Offering to King Frederick the Great. Knox handles it with subtlety and dexterity, allowing it to flow freely, with great refinement.

The final number Knox performs is the longest, Bach's Overture in the French Manner, BWV 831, which Knox informs us seems to be "an encyclopedic overview of all possible forms of keyboard composition" when Bach wrote it. Knox goes on to say it "captures the most essential elements of French harmony, rhythm, ornamentation, and form." Knox approaches the eight-part suite in an imaginative yet cultured style, varying his technique as need arises, from sweet and elegant to sprightly and energetic. Always, however, Knox appears to inform the music with period grace, making the performances feel both expressive and authentic.

Producer Hank Knox and audio engineer Brad Michel of Clarion Productions recorded the music at the Church of Saint-Augustin-de-Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in May 2012. A harpsichord can sound pretty “clangy” (if you know what I mean), especially if the recording itself is too forward or bright. However, this recording sounds just about right, capturing the instrument fairly close up yet within a natural ambience, with a satisfyingly real bloom around the presentation. The sonics are smooth (for a harpsichord), detailed, dynamic, and lifelike, with a convincing decay time adding to the illusion of reality.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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