J.S. Bach: Works for Harpsichord Volume 1

Richard Lester has been at the centre of early keyboard music for fifty years with a professional career that began in 1966. His teacher, George Malcolm generously promoted his debut recital at the Wigmore Hall, and from that followed concerts including the Royal Festival Hall Purcell Room, master-classes and recitals at Dartington International Summer School, Bruges Festival and the Bath International Festival. As a Fellow of the London College of Music, he has given many organ recitals in King’s College, Cambridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, Coventry, and in 2013 he was invited to perform in St Mark’s, Venice, and Bergamo Cathedral.

His vast discography for Nimbus Records is acclaimed world-wide and includes: the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti; the majority of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s keyboard works on original instruments, organ masses by Girolamo Cavazzoni, Andrea Gabrieli and Claudio Merulo; and sonatas by Carlos Seixas, Antonio Soler, Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has also compiled and edited a volume of Italian Renaissance keyboard works which includes a DVD on early fingering and ornamentation plus a CD demonstrating works by composers associated with St Mark’s in Venice (also published and available from Nimbus). A review on MusicWeb International commented: ‘A master-class and entertainment in one.’

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This is the first volume of a projected complete edition of J. S. Bach’s keyboard works with a planned release schedule of one double-CD release from now until 2023, making seven volumes in all. With two well-filled discs as an opener, this seems like an attractive prospect, and we are immediately treated to what has become one of Bach's best known keyboard works, the Goldberg Variations. While Lester's reading is scholarly, or measured and accurate rather than audaciously individual, my appreciation for his interpretation grew constantly over the first proper run-through and has remained respectfully admiring on subsequent hearings. There is playfulness here, but this is to be found in the inner life of these pieces rather than in their speed—avoiding the superficial virtuosity of velocity. Linking the first variation to the Aria ensures that the number of each subsequent variation corresponds to its track number on the CD, so there is method in this approach.

Richard Lester's playing here has a pleasant flow, as well as plenty of sprightly contrast where required. As mentioned, extremes of tempo are not a feature here, though pieces such as Variation 15, the mournful Variation 21 and the great Variation 25 are given their expressive due. Some harmonic points are emphasised with perhaps a slightly heavy rhythmic rubato here and there, but again the proportions of each variation fit seamlessly into a clear vision of the whole. There is certainly no attempt at over-reverential slowness in these cases; logical structure and flow are maintained throughout.

The instrument used for most of this recording is a fine-sounding double-manual harpsichord built by Colin Booth in 2011, based on a single manual example by a Hamburg maker Johann Christoph Fleischer, dated 1710. This has plenty of vibrancy and depth of tone. While the recording is fairly close, there is a nice stereo spread to the sound and the detail is not wearing on the ears.

CD 2 begins with an impressive account of the Italian Concerto, again with Lester's feel of careful preparation and satisfactory musicianship, but also with plenty of zip in the final Presto. The same goes for the Toccata in D minor. The improvisatory feel of the opening is perhaps a little cursory, but with plenty of drive and joyful energy. The Toccata in E minor is taken with a touch more reserve, those helter-skelter notes restrained by their minor key expressiveness.

As previously suggested, this Bach keyboard recording project looks more than being merely promising. This first volume stands at the vanguard of something that will stand proudly alongside other such huge projects by Richard Lester, including the entire Scarlatti sonatas, Frescobaldi and numerous others. Lester's numerous followers will need little persuading to acquire this Bach programme, and they will surely not be disappointed. I have a feeling that many fans of Bach played on the harpsichord will have a soft spot for Richard Lester's recordings, and I am happy to be counted amongst their ranks. Dominy Clements, MusicWeb

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