Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801
Gustav Leonhardt (Harpsichord)
Bach’s Inventions & Sinfonias from Leonhardt
Donald Satz wrote (March 18, 2001):
It's taken me a long time to get around to reviewing Gustav Leonhardt's recording of Bach's Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801, but the day has now arrived. The disc is on Sony SBK 61869 and was recorded in 1974 in Amsterdam.
For comparison purposes, I'm using Suzuki on BIS, Laberge on Analekta, and Koopman on Capriccio. Just to summarize my previous conclusions about these three performances, I found Suzuki's a wonderful recording, Laberge was very good with fantastic sound, and Koopman and his sound were not as rewarding as the other two versions.
Leonhardt's recorded sound, although from the 1970's is just fine: crisp, clear, and quite up-front. It's not the type of sound that's inducive for subtlety, but Leonhardt should easily be able to overcome that little problem.
C major/minor Inventions - Leonhardt's very good in both pieces. His optimism is strong in the C major, and he's appropriately sad and incisive in the C minor. The only performance from the comparison versions that's superior to Leonhardt's is the C minor from Suzuki, and it would be very difficult to match Suzuki on this one.
D major/minor Inventions - Much more animated than the previous inventions, Leonhardt rises to the occasion splendidly. He is highly playful in the D major and full of joy in the D minor. Leonhardt's accenting is excellent, and he's very incisive. Koopman is exceptional in both pieces, and I'd place Leonhardt at that level also.
E flat major Invention - Happy and infectious music, I prefer it performed quickly at a little over a minute in length. The comparison versions are each too slow for my liking, and Leonhardt extends the music up to the two minute range. Although on piano, Gould easily surpasses Leonhardt with a thrilling rendition.
E major/minor Inventions - This is an excellent series for Leonhardt. Although I still prefer Laberge in the E major and Suzuki in the E minor, Leonhardt is close to those two superb readings. He well brings out the comfort and up/down quality of the E major; nostalgia and sadness are prevalent in the E minor.
F major/minor Inventions - The F major is exciting and playful music which Leonhardt captures better than the comparison versions; it may be on the slow side, but Leonhardt still maximizes the thrill. The F major is sad and even morose; bad things are going on and they are beating down humanity's door. Leonhardt is excellent here as well, again better than the compared versions.
G major/minor Inventions - Another fine series for Leonhardt. I prefer Suzuki in these two pieces, but Leonhardt is a close second. He brings much joy to the G major, and his G minor is fully vested with foreboding contrasted with rays of light.
A major/minor Inventions - The A minor is upbeat; Leonhardt probably does it as well as any other version I've heard. However, he's very quick in the A minor with reduced nostalgia and reflection. Suzuki remains my favorite harpsichord version for the A minor as he really gets to the music's core.
B flat major/B minor Inventions - Suzuki sets a high standard here and Leonhardt is up to the task. His B flat major takes the tender approach and fully delivers; Suzuki presents a very exuberant peformance. Both are excellent. In the B minor, Leonhardt fully displays the lurking and menacing beginning, and his rhythm is irresistable. Again, Leonhardt is as fine as Suzuki.
That's it for the Two-Part Inventions, and Leonhardt is very impressive. He tends toward slower than average tempos, and that's a common trait of Leonhardt's. He is also highly incisive and angular which are also Leonhardt traits. Although I feel that Leonhardt's true forte is in a work such as the Art of Fugue where he can work his magic on extended structures and give them complete inevitability, he is mighty fine in the Inventions. There are no revelations, but Leonhardt gives sturdy and fully idiomatic readings fully equal to Suzuki's. Only in the E flat major and A minor Inventions did Leonhardt stray from excellence, and other listeners might well appreciate the tempos he uses more than I did.
C major/minor Sinfonias - This is not an impressive series for Leonhardt. His C major is fine but a little "edgy"; I prefer a smoother delivery such as the one from Laberge. In the C minor, Leonhardt is surprisingly on the quick side at well under two minutes; the depths he plumbs are slight compared to Suzuki who extends the music to 2 1/2 minutes. Both Leonhardt performances are competitive, but they don't stand up to the best.
D major/minor Sinfonias - The D major is joyous music which Leonhardt well conveys in a sharp manner. Although slower than the three comparisons, nothing is lost or diminished. Leonhardt adopts a relatively quick tempo in the D minor; although enjoyable, I prefer slower readings like Suzuki's where I can luxuriate in the music.
E flat major Sinfonia - Leonhardt, like Suzuki, is very slow. Leonhardt's greater angularity pays dividends here as he brings out fully the pathos of the Sinfonia. Laberge's issue is quicker and one of the best; Leonhardt's is in that class.
E major/minor Sinfonias - The E major is "feel-good" music which sways around inside one's bloodstream. Laberge gives the best performance I've heard, and Leonhardt now joins him. Using less legato than Laberge, Leonhardt displays a great rhythm and joy of life. The E minor starts off softly and with sadness; as the piece progresses, it becomes more intense and brooding. Leonhardt excellently conveys these feelings, although I do prefer the smoother approach of Laberge.
F major/minor Sinfonias - There's quite a contrast between the F major and F minor Sinfonias; the F major is so joyous, and the F minor is relentlessly bleak. Leonhardt provides this contrast as strongly as in any other performances.
G major/minor Sinfonias - The G major is as joyous as the F major, and Leonhardt gives one of the best performances I've heard. The G minor is exquisitely sad; Suzuki's very slow reading is a work of gorgeous perfection. Leonhardt is also quite slow and the performance is just a tad less gorgeous than Suzuki's; that owes solely to Suzuki's wonderfully recorded sound.
A major/minor Sinfonias - In the happy A major, every note from Leonhardt rings out with joy; it's A major performance I thought I'd never hear. Matters aren't quite so good with the A minor. Leonhardt is rather quick in this bitter/sweet piece; I think the music is better served by Suzuki's much slower and expressive reading. However, taken on its own terms, Leonhardt does give an exciting peformance.
B flat major/B minor Sinfonias - Both pieces are life-affirming, although the B minor begins with layers of clouds which are systematically eliminated to display the light of wisdom. As usual, Leonhardt is right on target with a delicioslow B flat major exuding life's rewards and a B minor which possesses great pacing and depth.
I haven't been keeping score, but I'm sure that Leonhardt at least matches the high quality of the Suzuki recording. Two or three times, Leonhardt uses a faster than average tempo to no advantage; those performances are still very enjoyable. Other than that, I'm listening to some wonderful readings. I consider the disc essential for any Bach enthusiast not allergic to the harpsichord, and it would make a very fine first version. The only possible reservation I could hold is that the recorded sound is sharp; add in Leonhardt's sharpness, and the result might be a little grating for some folks. I think the sound is excellent for the time period, but it's not at the level of the Suzuki or Laberge discs.
Don's Conclusion: The Leonhardt recording is one the best available, and its price is at bargain level. There's every reason to snap it up and enjoy. If my comments about sharpness cause any concern, it's probably best to sample a few tracks.