Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

JS Bach in the Italian Style James Tibbles

JS Bach in the Italian Style
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata in D BWV 912 [12:03]
Capriccio sopra la lontananza BWV 992 [14:08]
Fantasia in a minor BWV 904 [4:10]
Concerto in the Italian Style BWV 971 [11:00]
Fugue in a minor BWV [7:10]
Goldberg aria BWV 988 1 [5:09]
Concerto in C for 2 harpsichords BWV 1061a [18:24]
James Tibbles - harpsichord
Jenny Thomas – harpsichord (BWV 1061a)
Recorded in the Music Theatre, School of Music, The University of Auckland February, July 2008 Stereo DDD
Atoll ACD 509 [75:25]

A fine disc, this, of Bach’s Italianate keyboard works, but it is hard to determine which is its most compelling attraction, the lyrical and historically sensitive performer, or the lyrical and historically sensitive instrument he plays. James Tibbles teaches at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, for whom he recently commissioned this harpsichord, a copy of the ‘Hamburg Zell’ of 1728. The instrument is very much the star of this show, appearing in numerous illustrations in the packaging. The picture of the original instrument on the back of the CD liner shows Christian Zell’s harpsichord to be a sumptuous creation. It has two manuals, eight legs and classical scenes painted onto every possible surface. The picture of the Auckland copy (the work of the plentifully-credited maker Paul Downie) shows a structurally identical instrument, but without the decorations. There is a modest painting on the soundboard, which is given pride of place on the front cover of the booklet.

Tibbles has played the original, so was presumably in a position to advise on the action and acoustical properties of the copy. The instrument has a sumptuous, resonant sound that is fully the equal of the original’s physical appearance. It has sweet tone, but projects well, and the sound from the lower strings has a satisfyingly pert focus. Tibbles makes the most of all these qualities. His playing is lyrical and flowing, fully exploiting the instrument’s rich resonance. His liner notes emphasise that Bach’s early works ‘in the Italian style’ are at least as German as they are Italian, a fact driven home by both player and instrument through a combination of muscularity and lyricism.

Tempos are generally on the relaxed side, pianist tempos rather than harpsichordist tempos I’m almost tempted to say. The fabulous sustaining properties of the instrument allow him to take his time. Ornamentation is discreet but never stingy. Phrasing is coherent and based on occasionally liberal rubato.
The Toccata in D BWV 912 is a boisterous opener, but even here Tibbles’ approach is based on a steady pace and clarity of texture. The Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother is perhaps more stately and genteel than its narrative structure demands, there’s a nice touch in the penultimate Aria though, where what I assume is a buff stop is engaged to create a lute-like tone. The Fantasia and Fugue in a minor BWV 904 is another performance emphasising clarity of tone over showmanship. The Italian Concerto (BWV 971) is again on the slow side, but the payoff is exceptionally clear melodic detail. The fugue from BWV 904 and the Goldberg Aria (BWV 988 1) that follows it both left me wanting more, more fugues would have been great, and a recording of the Goldberg Variations on this instrument would be a very welcome follow up disc.

Don’t be fooled by the rounded corners on the box; this isn’t an SACD. However, the recorded sound is, for the most part, crisp and immediate. It only really suffers in the last work, the Concerto for two harpsichords BWV 1061a, where some of the clarity of the tone in the middle register is lost through the competition of the two instruments. But Jenny Thomas, a pupil of Tibbles at Auckland University, is an excellent partner for the performance, seamlessly synchronising, even in the more rubato-laden passages.

All in all, this is a satisfying selection. James Tibbles has a distinctive take on repertoire that can be prone to anonymous conformity in other hands. But fine a player as he is, he’s not the main attraction here. That accolade goes to his magnificent harpsichord, which on the strength of this release is a fine recording instrument indeed.

Gavin Dixon

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