The Baroque’s gentle virtuoso

Writing reviews is pretty pointless if you have no idea who you’re writing for.  In my case I try to imagine near neighbours whose musical tastes correspond roughly with my own, who I regularly call on with news of this or that new release or reissue, sampling tracks at the ready. Today the prompt for my enthusiasm is a celebration of an early music pioneer who died in 2012, Warner Classics’ New Gustav Leonhardt Edition (9029646771, 35 cds, c£85). OK, I know the price-tag is pretty hefty, but in terms of musical nourishment the payback justifies the cost many times over.  For starters try Leonhardt’s 1965 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (originally out on Teldec’s ‘Das Alte Werk’ series, as are most of the recordings included here). Legendary producer Wolf Erichson saw to it that the harpsichord sound was warm yet present, while Leonhardt glides seamlessly from one variation to the next, never hurrying, forgoing repeats and making sure that rhythm and line are in happy accord. True, there are snappier accounts of the Goldbergs around, ones that make their points more forcefully, but none that commune from a more musical standpoint. Leonhardt is the ‘quiet man’ among Baroque players, but his performances always leave their mark. Then there’s Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother, ‘Departure’ in this context meaning not a cause for mourning, but a journey. It’s the only piece of instrumental programme music in Bach’s output, with section titles such as ‘Friends gather and try to dissuade him from departing’, ‘They picture the dangers which may befall him’ and to close ‘Fugue in Imitation of the Post horn’. Leonhardt quaintly, and quietly, announces each section (in German) before he performs it. 

There are numerous Bach miniatures including the sacred song Gib dich zufrieden und sei stille, superbly sung by Agnes Giebel, one of the finest sopranos of the day. And among the few cantatas featured is the magical funeral ode ‘Actus Tragicus’ or Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the very best time) which opens to a Sinfonia where two recorders interweave, as if comforting each other. Nothing else in Bach’s output quite compares and Leonhardt’s performance catches the music’s inner glow and near-minimalist allure. Other Bach masterpieces include violin sonatas with harpsichord, English Suites and Partitas and concertos for one or more harpsichords, all performed with unostentatious vitality. 

Beyond Bach there is music by his sons, most notably various symphonies and concertos by the highly original Carl Philipp Emanuel, including music that truly crosses the divide between the baroque and early classical eras, the Concerto for harpsichord and fortepiano, a work infused with a genuine sense of drama – the sort that ‘Bach the father’ conjured with his great D minor solo Clavier Concerto. 

And what else? Plenty that if you don’t already have a taste for repertoire of this era may well convert you. I’m speaking of Biber, Handel, Rameau, Froberger, Purcell, Kuhnau, English consort and keyboard music, and consort music generally. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Leonhardt is ‘better’ than his various successors in the period instrument field, but what makes him unique is the sense of confidentiality in his playing even when spirited (as it is in a striking group of Domenico Scarlatti sonatas). A sense of rightness is what I’m talking about. The keyboardist, conductor and scholar John Butt has said that “…there’s absolutely no doubting the enormous influence [Leonhardt] held over multiple generations of music making in the Baroque field.” And if that influence is to make its full impact we need to listen closely and devotedly. A magnificent set.

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