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David Hurwitz, January 2011

When I was in grad school I met a coed who had the best pickup line I have ever heard. I had borrowed a book from the library that she wanted, and in order to induce me to give it up early, she said, “Why don’t you come over to my place and check out my clavichord?” Disappointingly, she actually had one; her sister built them as a hobby. As it turned out, playing it was quite fun. The clavichord, in case you didn’t know, differs from all other keyboard instruments in its ability to produce a sort of vibrato (Bebung, in German), and in its sensitivity to touch. Before the rise of the piano it was the keyboard instrument of choice for C.P.E. Bach, as well as his dad J.S.

These 18 “Practice Pieces” were composed to go along with C.P.E. Bach’s epochal treatise on the art of keyboard playing. Organized into six three-movement sonatas and closing with an emotionally gripping Fantasia, they admirably summarize the technique of the day while providing a series of studies of increasing difficulty and elaboration. The expressive complexity increases with the technical demands, from the first sonata’s Allegretto tranquillemente opening, to the Fifth’s Adagio assai mesto e sostenuto and concluding Allegretto arioso ed amoroso. They are marvelous pieces.

The clavichord was known for having a limited dynamic range, but it was still a big improvement on the harpsichord. For these pieces, Bach runs the gamut from ff to ppp, and perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Miklós Spányi’s performance is his generous observance of Bach’s contrasts in volume (incidentally, a lovely and inexpensive facsimile edition of these pieces is available in the Packard Humanities Institute’s ongoing complete C.P.E. Bach edition). The instrument itself has an attractive sound, not too thin, with a bit of mechanical noise, and enough sustaining ability to give the Bebung and numerous pauses on juicily dissonant chords plenty of atmosphere. BIS’s sonics, fairly close but also resonant, add to this impression. Definitely worth owning.

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