J S Bach: Little Books

Francesco Corti harpsichord
arcana A480
+Böhm, Couperin, Hasse, Kuhnau, Telemann

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This is a recital that introduces us to the idea of formation by learning under a teacher’s instruction – and also by copying out the music – pieces of that teacher’s choosing.  The “Little Books” of the title – Klavierbüchlein in German – are the books prepared by Johann Sebastian for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann in 1720 and his second wife, Anna Magdalena in 1722 and 1725.

In these latter, we find the first sketches for what would later become the French Suites, while others come from the ‘Andreas Bach Book’ that originated with Johann Sebastian’s eldest brother and first teacher, Johann Christoph. Here we have some of Bach’s earliest keyboard compositions set alongside those he admired and copied for teaching purposes by other composers.

Francesco Corti, an experienced teacher as well as harpsichordist, plays a selection of these in his illuminating recital on a 1998 copy by Andrea Restelli of a Christian Vater harpsichord (Hannover 1738) now in the Germanisches Museum, Nürnberg. The introductory essay on music from the Bach family circle by Peter Wollny and Corti’s own piece, Copying the master’s gestures, are both in English, German and French, and each exudes thoughtful, undogmatic scholarship and sound musicianship.

Corti’s playing matches these aspirations. He is fluent without being showy and varies his style with the chosen music – indeed the whole production is an essay in how to teach by immersion in sources, sounds and sensual serendipity. Recorded in 2019 before the pandemic of this past year, this is the kind of production that is useful to have in lockdown as a teaching aid or refresher course, helping students re-examine the sources of their own technique and choices.

I recommend it for these reasons as well as for the innate musicality of Conti’s playing, which can be glimpsed live in his performance of the A major harpsichord concerto BWV 1055.

Here you can see Corti engaging with the other players in the only one of Bach’s early concertos that he transcribed for harpsichord – probably originally for oboe d’amore – to have a separate continuo part in addition to the solo instrument. This is teaching by immersion, and I commend Conti as a first-class teacher, as he is on this clip, teaching his master’s Suite in G major.

David Stancliffe

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