The KEYBOARD TOCCATAS
by Bernard D. Sherman
published as a "Classical Brief" in
The New York Times, October 4, 1998
Bach's keyboard toccatas get no respect. Critics grumble that these early,
multisectional works don't hang together, and that some of the sections
just plain go on too long.
But some of the toccatas do coalesce, and if the others are not perfect,
they have something more important: tons of character. The mature Bach
does not seem to have had much use for them, but his contemporaries did,
to judge by the number of manuscript copies that survive in their handwriting.
That they had good reason is suggested by a new recording featuring the
American harpsichordist Edward Parmentier. The clearest token of his success
is in passages that repeat a single pattern again and again. One movement
of the F sharp minor Toccata (BWV 910) consists of no fewer than 21 such
sequences; Mr. Parmentier is one of the rare performers to make something
gripping of them. When the bass line begins to ascend halfway through
the movement, he lets us hear that it is an event.
He also knows how to keep the fugues interesting. Under his hands, the
final fugue in the D major Toccata (BWV 912) truly dances, where in some
performances it merely marches.
While Mr. Parmentier's interpretations are far from eccentric, they are
his own. Most performers maximize the contrasts in the Adagio of the D
Major, but he plays the movement dreamily, to great effect. Late in the
movement, for example, he makes the sudden descending scales sing, whereas
most performers treat them as a surprising interruption.
No recording has made every movement of these youthful
works come off: here, the fugue in the C minor Toccata (BWV 911) seems
as overlong as it does with most players. But in general Mr. Parmentier's
imagination and intensity are hard to resist, even by those used to knocking
A New York Times "Classical Brief" does have to be brief.
Since the Web lets you go on endlessly without running out of page space,
let me add a few words about the recorded sound and the instrument. The
sound, engineered by Peter Nothnagle, is unusually natural. The instrument,
a French double built in 1785, is alluring to the ear and responsive to
the touch. It is also anachronistic, since Bach wrote the toccatas in
Germany seven decades before this harpsichord was built, and the harpsichords
he knew differed significantly from this one. But only a pedant would
object. It's refreshing to hear a harpsichordist of Mr. Parmentier's stature
letting his ears (rather than history) guide him in the choice of instruments