The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 2
Steven Devine (harpsichord)
Resonus RES10261 148:16 mins (2 discs)
As the keyboard cornerstone of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, of the Gonzaga Band and of sundry other period-instrument ensembles, harpsichordist Steven Devine is a discreetly ubiquitous presence. But he’s also building a reputation as an outstanding recitalist; this completion of his ‘48’ is a highly satisfying account.
In the course of his scholarly liner note, Devine observes that he has followed the Kirnberger system of tuning, ‘modifying thirds slightly if I felt the listening experience was too sour, but preserving the quarter-comma-tuned fifths as a basis – trying to keep the essential colouration of each key in line with 18th-century aesthetics.’ His aim has also been to give his ‘particularly beautiful’ instrument (made by that consummate craftsman Colin Booth) the chance to sound its best – and in that he has certainly succeeded.
Some musicians play up the kaleidoscopic aspect of this extraordinary collection of pieces, but Devine gives it a strong underlying pulse, with emotional restraint; his playing is invigoratingly muscular, his intention with each piece pellucidly clear, often setting the pairs in fruitful contrast. Prelude No. 5 is ceremoniously celebratory, an effect undercut by its po-faced fugue; the grace of Prelude No. 9 resolves into the marmoreal contours of its fugue; I would have liked Prelude No. 6 to have been more hurtling and impetuous, but its serpentine fugue really does lash its tail. The chromatic Prelude No. 20 is bright and breezy as it examines its theme from every angle, but the fugue comes over as a comically stilted rejoinder. As Bach moves into ever more experimental regions, Devine rigorously keeps pace.
Find out more about JS Bach’s best keyboard works here