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Issue 101
This article was last updated on
19 January, 2001

More Stuff:

Anna Magdelena Notebook 1725. Behringer (Hänssler).

Art of Fugue, The (arr. Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet). ALSQ (Channel).

English Suites. Levin (Hänssler).

Goldberg Variations - An Inktroduction with links to individual reviews

Harpsichord Music by the Young Bach. Hill (Hänssler).

2- & 3-Part Inventions. Fantasia, BWV906. Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue. Hewitt (Hyperion).

Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Payne (Hänssler).


Six Partitas (harpsichord). Leonhardt (Veritas).

Six Partitas (harpsichord). Pinnock (Hänssler).

Toccatas BWVs 910-916. Watchorn (Hänssler).

Toccata, BWV 911. Partita No.2, BWV 826. English Suite No.2, BWV 807. Argerich (DG).

Transcriptions for Piano by other Composers. Lauriala (Naxos).


Organ Music Vols.89 (The Young Bach - A Virtuoso) and 94 (Hänssler). Zerer/Johanssen (Hänssler). By Margaret Chen.

The Leipzig Chorales BWV 651-667. Bryndorf (Hänssler)

Johann Sebastian BACH

Edition Bachakadamie Vol.136

Clavier-Büchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach (1725)

Michael Behringer harpsichord/chest organ
Sibylla Rubens soprano
Johannes-Christoph Happel baritone

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.136
2 discs [76:17 + 69:27] mid-price

by Benjamin Chee

"Bach and his Family at Mordenandacht" (1870), by Toby Edward Rosenthal.

Listening to Michael Behringer's sparkling performance of the famous Menuet in G (yes, that Menuet [Nokia 6100 series Ring Tone No.24. You've heard that one before, definitely. - Ed.]) is a nostalgic experience, with its sprinkling of "twiddly bits". It is certainly a far cry from the stolid renditions we are more often accustomed to - which, for most music students, would have been their first exposure to the music of Bach.

In fact, this is how Behringer tackles the Clavier-Büchlein: playing through the collection in its entirety with lots of energetic flair and extroversion, painting a very persuasive musical picture of the domestic 18th century family in the days before television, videotapes or the Internet.

For the most part, he applies an intelligent, musical sense towards embellishments and rubato. His ornamented reinvention of the aforementioned Menuet (Nos.4 & 5) simply makes the listener feel like it's being heard again for the first time. The diminuitive march by Johann Christian Bach (No.16) is coyishly delightful, not to mention the lute-like first Prelude of the Forty-Eight (No.29) in its ripples of layered musical furbellows.


"A Day in the Life of"

There are, in fact, no less than three Clavier-Büchlein to be found in the collection of the Bach family. The first book was for Wilheim Friedmann, the eldest of the Bach progeny, while the second and third from 1722 and 1725 respectively were for Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena.

These musical scrapbooks offer us an insight into the musical life and character of the Bach family; indeed, it provides a rare cross-sectional glimpse of "a day in the life of" domestic music in the eighteenth-century. Of the three Clavier-Büchlein, it appears that the last volume had special importance to the Bach family: the manuscript was bound in green parchment, with gold trim on the cover and spine, the edges limned in gilt and on the cover, initialled with AMB with the year 1725 below, bound together with ribbons of red satin.

These manuscripts were arranged by Anna Magdalena, apparently, with an artistic plan, starting with the A minor Partita and ending with the chorale O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. The Aria from the Goldberg Variations is included, as well as Bist du bei mir, the first Prelude of the Forty-Eight and two French Suites. And there is also the famous Menuet in G, originally attributed to Bach but now known to be the work of one Dresden organist Christian Petzold.

Most of the entries in the book were made by Anna Magdalena herself, daughter of the trumpetist at Cöthen and a talented pianist and court singer herself; the folio was a present to her when she was twenty-four. Other identifiable hands who wrote in it, apart from Johann Sebastian himself, were his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian Bach, as well as family friends Johann Gottfried Heinrich and Johann Gottfried Bernhard.

Surprisingly, the eldest son Wilheim Friedmann, who was himself a renowned keyboardist and for whom Bach had compiled the first Clavier-Büchlein when he was ten, made no contribution. But this music, so painstakingly copied by Anna Magdalena for herself and her family, represents the best-loved music of Bach's family.

Unfortunately, there are some instances where Behringer's attitude towards the music is overdriven and becomes rather too well done, resulting in a certain degree of blandness and sobriety. By and large, though, this occurs in the transcriptions of Bach's own weightier works.

The aria of the Goldberg Variations (No.26), for example, is wilfully slow and unsubtle, and Behringer's irregular tempi unduly distorts the rhythmic pattern. The first of the French Suites (No.30) somehow lacks the imaginative flair one expects at this level of performance, and the Partitas which preface the entire collection (Nos.1 & 2) are equally uninspiring, albeit competently played. Certainly, they could could have borrowed some of the friskiness from, say, the solo per il Cembalo (No.27) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.


On the second disc, Behringer is joined by a pair of vocalists to round out the performances. Johannes-Christoph Happel is an excellent vocalist, understandingly supported by Behringer, and sings with a fresh, youthful timbre. Even if his baritone lacks a little in weight, the legato of his phrasing makes for compelling listening. It is a pity that his contribution to this album, as compared to his female counterpart, is minimal.

Sibylla Rubens, with the lion's share of the vocals, sings most tenderly and is as remarkable as I have ever heard her on record, the only snag being the overly-spacious sound and the fierce miking which accentuates her sibilants rather harshly. Fortunately, this is more than overshadowed by the chaste quicksilver of her timbre quality: her renditions of Bist du bei mir (No.25) and Dir, dir Jehova (No.39b) are simply charming, and the other arias are no less telling.

The documentation by Dr Andreas Bomba is comprehensive, with an eminently instructive overview of the entire Clavier-Büchlein, as well as individual histories and commentaries on each of the items included. This is, along with its companion volumes (Clavier-Büchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach 1722 (CD 92.135) and Clavier-Büchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (CD 92.137)), arguably the most complete collection of the Bach family "musical notebooks".

Admittedly, this issue is a bit of a curate's egg to me. While the individally collected movements and "odds and ends" are performed - the vocalists included here - with much élan and zest and alone would have earned an unconditional recommendation, Behringer's reading of the Partitas and French Suites (and these total almost seventy-six minutes of playing time) is obstinately unengaging.

To acquire two discs for effectively the contents of one is uneconomical, which is a great pity since the Bachklugeln are in every way superbly done. Listeners will have to weigh for themselves the cost of paying more against obtaining this repertoire: caveat emptor. But those who can indulge - well, needn't hesitate.


BENJAMIN CHEE is presently conducting a study on how much royalties Bach would earn, if he were still alive today, on handphone transcriptions of his music.

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753: 10.8.2000 ©Benjamin Chee

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