Bach: Keyboard Works (CD review)

Hank Knox, harpsichord. EMCCD-7775.

Hank Knox has been playing the harpsichord for years, enough years to have produced dozens of record albums, toured internationally, and performed with conductors Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, Sir Roger Norrington, and Andrew Parrott, among others. He currently teaches harpsichord and continuo in the Early Music program at McGill University in Montreal, where he also conducts various instrumental and chamber music ensembles including the McGill Baroque Orchestra. But playing the harpsichord doesn’t always make one a rock star, so you may not be entirely familiar with Knox. Now you will be.

On the present album of keyboard works by German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Knox performs a wide and diverse selection of the man’s work, from early to late. I must admit that while I enjoy a good harpsichord accompaniment in chamber and concerto pieces, I am not such a big fan of solo harpsichord music. Still, Knox is a creative and persuasive performer, helping me to rather enjoy what he did, performing on a replica of an eighteenth-century Dulcken harpsichord recreated by Richard Kingston.

Knox begins the program with the Toccata in E-minor, BWV 914, an early work (probably written sometime before 1710, despite its catalogue number). The piece seems fairly well represented on disc (I count about four dozen recordings listed on Amazon, with probably a few dozen more they don’t handle or are out of print), yet it may still be unknown to a lot of listeners. It usually doesn’t get as prominent a position on an album as it does here, most of the time just kind of filling up space. Anyway, it’s in three sections: an introductory Vivace, an Allegro, an Adagio, and a final Allegro in the form of a fugue. Knox plays the entire piece with spirit, but without trying to glamorize or exaggerate the rhythms. Instead, the piece sounds animated, not breathless.

Next up is the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D-minor, BWV 903, in two parts: Fantasia and Fugue. This, if anything, is even more brilliant than the preceding Toccata, with a good deal of elaborate finger work. Knox tells us in a booklet note that Bach had just bought a fancy new harpsichord at the time and may have been trying to show it off. Certainly, Knox shows off the work's ornate passages to good effect.

Then we get the Fantasy in C-minor, BWV 906, in a single movement. Although it's brief at about five minutes, it includes some of the composer's best melodies, sounding quite Romantic, actually, even if played rather more quickly than most performers would have executed it in Bach’s time.

The next selection, the three-part Ricercar a3, is interesting because it's a section of Bach's Musical Offering to King Frederick the Great. Knox handles it with subtlety and dexterity, allowing it to flow freely, with great refinement.

The final number Knox performs is the longest, Bach's Overture in the French Manner, BWV 831, which Knox informs us seems to be "an encyclopedic overview of all possible forms of keyboard composition" when Bach wrote it. Knox goes on to say it "captures the most essential elements of French harmony, rhythm, ornamentation, and form." Knox approaches the eight-part suite in an imaginative yet cultured style, varying his technique as need arises, from sweet and elegant to sprightly and energetic. Always, however, Knox appears to inform the music with period grace, making the performances feel both expressive and authentic.

Producer Hank Knox and audio engineer Brad Michel of Clarion Productions recorded the music at the Church of Saint-Augustin-de-Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in May 2012. A harpsichord can sound pretty “clangy” (if you know what I mean), especially if the recording itself is too forward or bright. However, this recording sounds just about right, capturing the instrument fairly close up yet within a natural ambience, with a satisfyingly real bloom around the presentation. The sonics are smooth (for a harpsichord), detailed, dynamic, and lifelike, with a convincing decay time adding to the illusion of reality.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa