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Fantasia in C minor BWV906 [4'36]
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The study of Bach’s two- and three-part Inventions is an essential for any pianist. Through them we can learn the basics of phrasing, articulation, touch, rhythm, fingering, ornamentation, and especially the acquisition of a singing tone. Not only do they develop finger dexterity and the complete independence of every finger, but they give the student a wonderful example of musical construction. Too often they are passed over rapidly in favour of a Prelude and Fugue. This is a grave mistake, because it’s important to play well in two voices before proceeding to three or four.
Originally written for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach included the following preface in an autograph manuscript of 1723:
The title ‘Invention’ was most likely adopted from four-violin pieces written bv Bonporti which Bach copied into his notebooks. It was Bach’s first biographer, Forkel, who used this word for the three-part works. Bach himself called them ‘Sinfonias’. In any case, what is important is the marvellous conversation that goes on between the two hands. Whatever the right hand is able to do, the left hand must also accomplish with equal dexterity and expressiveness.
The piano seems to me to be an ideal instrument for this music—as long as one stays away (with the odd exception) from the sustaining pedal! It is admirably suited to bringing out the different voices, and a skilful player can accomplish this with different colours. To be capable of producing a true legato without using the pedal will serve a pianist well in any repertoire.
There are many treasures to be found in these short pieces, which are arranged in order of ascending keys (major before minor), omitting the more unusual ones. In the ‘Two-part’, the brilliant virtuosity of the F major and A major contrasts with the quiet lyricism of the F minor and G minor. The G major is a lighthearted jig, and the robustness of the A minor gives way to the delicacy of the B flat. Perhaps the two most unusual are the E flat and F minor ‘Three-part’. The former is in the manner of an Italian trio sonata and is a wonderful study in ornamentation and how it must be an integral part of the melodic line. The tragic F minor (a crucifixion?) is the emotional highpoint, with bleak harmonies and agonizing chromaticisms. What makes this music so rewarding is that it is food not only for the mind and fingers, but also for the heart.
The Fantasia in C minor which opens this recital begins with tremendous force and decision. Its energy comes from three motifs: a descending arpeggio in the right hand (which soon becomes, in the left hand, an ascending one), an octave leap, and a rattling trill. In the fifth bar Bach introduces two more fragments—a chromatic scale and a playful leaping figure—both of which play major roles later on (the latter appearing in a treacherous passage close to the end where many a player will come to grief!). Much of its appeal lies in the sections that require hand-crossing—both the Italian type (using large skips), and in the French manner (one hand playing within the span of the other). Written sometime around 1738, this work must surely have influenced Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel in his development of sonata form.
For sheer virtuosity and drama, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is hard to match. Probably begun in Cöthen in 1720, but revised in Leipzig ten years later, it has always been one of Bach’s most popular keyboard works, even during his own lifetime. The opening flourishes begin a toccata-like improvisation in which Bach makes use of the entire keyboard (as it was then). The arpeggios that follow provide a point of rest, although certainly not from harmonic interest. The execution of these has always been a subject of debate. Mendelssohn wrote to his sister, Fanny, after a performance in 1840: ‘I take the liberty of playing the arpeggios with all possible crescendos, and pianos, and fortissimos, pedal of course, and doubling the octaves in the bass.’ These days a more simple approach is favoured! The ensuing recitative would have been more effective on Bach’s favourite keyboard instrument, the clavichord, since it calls for flexible dynamics and shading which, more than the harpsichord, it was able to provide. The Fantasia winds down in a beautiful five-bar coda, with diminished seventh chords descending over a pedal point in the bass. The three-part Fugue begins very quietly, but gradually gains momentum. The sixteenth-notes (semiquavers) drive it forward, full chords add emphasis, octaves reinforce the bass, and all ends triumphantly!
Angela Hewitt © 1994
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