Thursday 10 July 2014

Steven Devine plays Bach

Bach - keyboard works - Steven Devine - Chandos Chaconne
Bach Italian Concerto, French Overture; Steven Devine; Chandos Chaconne
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 04 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Fine performances of Bach's keyboard works but the harpsichord sound may not please everyone

This new disc from harpsichordist Steven Devine on Chandos's Chaconne label showcases some of Johann Sebastian Bach's large scale keyboard works with an emphasis on those in the Italian or French style including the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV903, Aria variata 'all maniera italiana' BWV989, Fantasia BWV906, Concerto nach italianischen Gusto BWV971 (Italian Concerto) and Ouverture nach franzosicher Art BWV831 (French ouverture). Devine plays them all with bravura and style, and imbues many with an infectious elan.

He opens with Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, bringing an improvisatory quality to the Fantasia and giving the tightly wrought Fugue a feeling of rhythmic vitality. He keeps a steady tempo, and makes the fugue building in impressive way.

Steven Devine - photo credit John Buckman at Magnatune
Steven Devine
photo credit John Buckman at Magnatune
Next comes the Aria variata 'alla maniera italiana', the earliest work on the disc, probably dating from 1708. The initial aria is quite archaic sounding, whilst the subsequent variations are all generally of a perky lively characters until the stately final one. Bach's changes of texture and metre though are nicely highlighted by Devine. Bach's Fantasia follows the Aria Variata in a bravura performance from Devine which combines discipline with excitement.

Here, I would like to pause, and consider the recorded sound of the harpsichord itself. Devine plays on a double manual instrument by Colin Booth from 2000, based on a single Manual Johann Christoph Fleischer instrument from Hamburg in 1710. It seems to have a big, bright, brilliant sound. But I have to confess that I rather disliked it. The sound is too brash for my taste, developing a hard edge at times and sounding as if the recording had been made inside the instrument. I have tried to separate Devine's performances from the sound quality of the instrument on this recording, but too often the one put me off the other.

Bach's Concerto nach italianischem Gusto, the Italian Concerto, was published in the second part of Bach's Clavier Ubung in 1735. Part one of the publication had contained the six partitas (there is some evidence that the first movement of the concerto started out life as the seventh partita). Part two contained just the Italian Concerto and the French Ouverture. Though the Italian Concerto is written in three movements and modelled on Vivaldi's concertos, it is clear that Bach conceived the work as a keyboard piece.

Devine brings a certain grandeur to the first movement; the speed is not too fast but there is still a lovely vivid feel to his playing with crisply infectious rhythms. In the Andante, Devine's right hand did not quite sing for me and the movement settled a little too comfortably into a steady chugging. The final movement was full of brilliant playing but the bright, and harsh sound of the harpsichord put me off.

Devine follows this with the other work in part two of the Clavier Ubung, the French Ouverture (or French Suite as I was brought up to call it!). Bach showing his skill in mastering both the French and Italian styles. The long opening movement starts darkly dramatic and resonant with thrillingly double dotted rhythms.

Here, and elsewhere on the disc, it is clear that Devine is a master of what I could call steady excitement, keeping the tempo moderate but using attack and rhythm to generate excitement. The Courante is lively yet stately and characterful. The new five movements, with the exception of the slow and elegant Sarabande in the middle are all rather perky with dance like rhythms to the fore. Devine playing in the final Echo is highly infectious.

There is much to enjoy in Steven Devine's playing on this disc. Many will not find the harpsichord sound off-putting, but I would advise you to try before you buy.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1759) - Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV 993 [12.09]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1759) - Aria variata 'alla maniera italiana' BWV 989 [14.38]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1759) - Fantasia BWV 906 [5.02]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1759) - Concerto nach italianischen Gusto [13.06]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1759) - Ouverture nach franzosicher Art BWV 831 [27.00]
Steven Devine (harpsichord)
Recorded Porton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 23-25 September 2013

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