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!
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 1994