Bach's two and three part inventions come from the Little Clavier Book
(Clavierbuchlein) which was prepared for the instruction of Bach's son
Wilhelm Friedemann when he was about 9 years old. Each of the two series
of inventions is arranged in an ascending order of keys starting with C
major. The two part inventions provide instruction for playing two parts
simultaneously, the three part inventions for playing three obbligato
parts. There is much opinion that the three part inventions are a major
advance over the two part.
In the area of general appeal, the Inventions do not possess the
stature of Bach's WTC or Goldberg Variations. Regardless, these are
masterful pieces of music which display a wide range of emotions and are
mathematically constructed as well. Also, the diversity of the pieces is
very strong and includes theme inversions, voice crossings, fugues, double
counterpoints, dance, trio form, and canons at the octave.
For comparison purposes, I am using three harpsichord and five piano
versions. The harpsichord recordings are Koopman on Capriccio, Suzuki on
BIS, and Laberge on Analekta. The piano recordings are Hewitt on Hyperion,
Peter Serkin on RCA, Schiff on Decca, Gould on Sony, and Jeffrey Kahane on
Nonesuch (3-part only coupled with Partita No. 4). I should mention that
the Gould recording has been reissued multiple times; I have the version
in the Glenn Gould Edition which was issued in 1992, catalog number 52596.
Also, Gould follows each two part piece with the three part piece of the
same key; this approach corresponds to one of the existing manuscripts of
the Clavierbuchlein. Let's move on to the two part inventions.
Two Part Inventions in C major and C minor - I find these two pieces
emotionally inverse to one another; the C major is basically a pensively
cheerful piece tinged with sadness, while the C minor is sadness tinged
with pensive cheer. But to Hewitt, it seems to be mainly a matter of
speed. She flys through both pieces, and the emotions get left behind
although the excitement is enhanced. Schiff does a fine job; he provides
the emotions called for in very satisfying performances. His sound is
certainly acceptable but not ideally crisp. Gould likes the "forward
march" approach; even when playing slowly as in the C minor, you never lose
focus on the priority he places on forward momentum. I like that a lot,
but the emotional supply is a little lacking. The sound is good, and we
also get the distinctive Gould hum. Koopman also does well but lacks
Speaking of Laberge, his performances are fine and idiomatic. The
harpsichord sound is very unusual, as if it's coming from a cavern
(similar to that Nimbus sound); I think it's great. That leaves two
really special performances. Suzuki has a great sense of pacing in
his cantata recordings, and he displays it beautifully in both pieces.
He leaves me feeling that he's found the perfect symmetry to the music.
Harpsichord sound is excellent and much more mainstream than for Laberge.
Serkin is something else entirely. Although his tempos are slow in each
piece, you notice none of that as he tells you two complete stories - the
man just opens up the music into a multi-dimensional world of its own.
Absolutely riveting. If you enjoy finding yourself in another time and
place, Serkin's your man. And his part playing is exceptional.
Two Part Inventions in D major and D minor - Here we find more animated
music than before. The D major is a playful piece and the D minor rather
joyful, although a little angry/macabre at the beginning. Hewitt slows
down some, but the emotional quotient remains low. The magic leaves
Serkin's fingers. Suzuki sounds rushed. Schiff is very poetic but not
deep. Gould and Laberge are okay. There's really only one version,
Koopman's, which brings the music to life and penetrates. He does for
these two inventions what Suzuki did for the first two.
I find Hewitt an enigma up to this point. Her WTC sets are so good, but
here it's as if she left her emotions on automatic pilot. Also, her
penchant for break-neck speeds with pensive music bewilders me.
Two Part Inventions in E flat major, E major, and E minor - The E flat
major is happy and infectious music. I find it works best when played at
a fast tempo (clocking in at not more than about 1 minute and 20 seconds)
and with a strong sense of forward momentum and bass line. Five versions
are too slow to deliver maximum impact. Two, Gould and Hewitt (as
expected) are fast, powerful, and stress the bass line. Basically, this
piece plays into the strengths of these two performers (Gould/momentum &
The E major invention is comfortably happy music which requires a
smooth flow. This invention features canons at the octaves and double
counterpoint - it's one of my favorite inventions. Hewitt, surprisingly
is too delicate, Suzuki too choppy and uneven, Koopman rather bland, and
Serkin's is the fastest paced without any benefits. Now to the real good
stuff; to be in this category, the performer must recognize the up/down
nature of the music as if the stomach is churing up and down, only in this
case it happens in the head of the listener. Gould uses much staccato to
great effect - pacing is excellent and the flow perfect. Much the same can
be said of Schiff's performance except that he achieves it with a legato
approach. Then there's Laberge whose performance is right in the middle
with a gorgeous harpsichord sound.
The E minor invention is a beautiful and pensive piece tinged with
sadness, regret, and nostalgia. Relatively fast tempos can't possibly
do justice to the music, and that's where Gould and Hewitt can be found.
Schiff, Koopman, and Laberge don't bring out enough of the inherent
sadness. Excellent performances are delivered by Serkin and Suzuki.
In this group of seven versions, those two, so far, are uniformly the
best with soft-spoken and pensive pieces. Along with Gould, who carries
his own distinctive approach, these three are doing best up to this point.
Laberge, Schiff, and Hewitt hold up the rear.
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