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English Suites BWV 806-811

Bach’s English Suites, Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Donald Satz wrote (September 23, 2000):
Before moving on with the survey, I'd like to comment on the fact that most of the reviews I have done of Bach's works have been of his solo keyboard compositions. Part of the reason has to do with new releases that are issued then bought by myself which give me the internal drive to do a survey of recordings. The other part is that I do favor Bach's solo keyboard works over his other categories. However, I really don't want to slight his other works. In the next few months I'll do my best to review the Cello Suites, Sonatas/Partitas for Violin, Violin & Harpsichord Sonatas, St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), Art of Fugue, and Musical Offering. Bach's orchestral works are problematic for me at this time; whenever I start out on a body of orchestral works, like I did with the Brandenburgs, my interest level quickly dissipates and the thought of continuing the survey is not appealing. I imagine this too will change at some future point.

I do need to point out a correction to Part 1 of this survey. I identified Suite No. 1 as BWV 811, and it is actually BWV 806. I must have been getting far ahead of myself.

English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV 807 - The Prelude is one fiery piece of music which, if I recall well, was used in Woody Allen's movie "Crimes and Misdemeanors". It was very effective in the context of the film, but I like it best on its own where I can create whatever images come from within. How best to describe this musical masterpiece? You are likely familiar with the Big Bang theory of creation, and the Prelude is perfect music for it. I'm very fussy about performances of this piece and look for three basic qualities of execution: power, propulsion, and poetry. In spirit, the music gives me a feeling of the universe opening up, and any performance that delivers that spirit gets my gratitude. One last observation is that you just have to hear Bach's supreme writing and integration of the semi-quavers.

Five versions have all the above characteristics, three are partially successful, and one doesn't seem very interested in them. That would be Mr. Schiff. His performance is not bad at all, but it pales next to the three best versions. He slows down too often, destroying propulsion, and he softens too frequently as well. Watchorn, Perahia, and Levin, although very rewarding, have some problems with momentum.

It isn't easy to differentiate among Horszowski, Pogorelich, Gould, Leonhardt, and Argerich. However, Horszowski and Leonhardt aren't quite as propulsive as the other three. Also, Horszowski makes a major goof at 2'31" into the piece; being a concert performance, there's no opportunity for correction. That leaves Pogorelich, Gould, and Argerich as the best versions; each possesses that element of perpetual motion with a strength and level of poetry that's outstanding.

Some pieces of music just seem a little short of greatness no matter which artists perform them. I feel that way about the Allemande. It's reflective and bitter/sweet music which Bach often creates, but it doesn't quite impact me sufficiently. Excepting for Gould, each version is rewarding and heart-felt but not of magical quality. Gould's performance could be considered a losing one. He's much too fast for any reflection, and I can't detect a theme or emotion which takes its place; the enjoyment level is low.

Timings for the French-style Courante, which has two different metres, are generally a little over 1 1/2 minutes. Noticing that Gould is just slightly over a minute had me figuring that he must leave out a repeat; he does - the second repeat. Leonhardt is under a minute, and since he's no speed merchant, you can safely bet that he dispenses with both of them. But, for me, that's not a stopper with this music. What is a problem is that seven of the versions are essentially the same - good and very similar. I want something better than that out of this Courante, and Gould and Perahia thankfully provide it. Both versions provide a perpetual motion approach. Gould's is the "locomotive courante" as his left hand just keeps chugging along at fast speeds. Concerning Perahia, I don't tend to think of him as a "power" artist, but he is far ahead of the others in delivering a bone-crunching performance which still maintains a delicious element of poetry. I just want to add that Watchorn takes over 2 minutes and does nothing advantageous with the additional time to delve into details and/or present a unique picture. He might as well have played as fast as the others.

The Sarabande is a Grave of strong emotion and reflection. Gould is quite fast with a loss of emtional impact; he also engages in some ornamentation which I find unagreeable. All the other versions are very rewarding. Leonhardt provides the most uplifting/postive reading which is contrary to his reputation of being highly austere, Schiff is freely poetic and delicate, Pogorelich is very slow and deep, and Argerich gives a strongly classical performance. Watchorn, Horszowski, and Levin also do well. Best of all is Perahia whose performance has similarities with Schiff except that Perahia provides more strength and emotional depth; he also has the most effective accenting and ornamentation. This is a masterful reading.

Next is a Bourree I, II, and da capo of I. It's interesting to note that, unlike the Bourree series in Suite No. 1, this series begins in a minor key, with Bourree II in the major key. The music is fast, powerful, and very propulsive. It sounds like an excellent match for Gould, and the results are fantastic. Nobody is as propulsive as Gould and he fully takes advantage of the situation. Argerich is almost as good, but she doesn't have quite the propulsion of Gould and she plays too softly at times.

The remaining versions are at a lower level. Levin is very strong, but in his da capo he moves to a higher register; that's a move I generally don't appreciate, and it sounds particularly "whimpy" in Levin's case. Schiff's problems are a weak right hand in Bourree I and a slowing down of tempo in Bourree II. There's something not quite right about Horszowski's reading, although he certainly is propulsive enough; he seems to go in spurts with a resulting feeling on my part that different sections of the movement have been tacked on to one another. Also, there is a bit of "sonic sludge" which doesn't help matters. When I started listening to Watchorn's Bourree I, I was thinking that it was as good as Argerich. But then Watchorn applies the brakes to the Bourree II; on its own, his Bourree II is a nice performance, but I don't feel it's a match with the Bourree I and significant damage is done to the music's flow and propulsion. Watchorn's problem also applies to Perahia and Leonhardt. Pogorelich has no problem at all with the Bourree II; it's strong and fast. His failing is in the Bourree I where, although fast, he plays like a "pussycat" with a very soft right hand staccato. This is quite a contrast to the power of his Prelude. Overall, Argerich and particularly Gould are the ones to admire and enjoy.

The concluding gigue is played three times - AABBAB. Leonhardt uses up just a little more than one minute by paying no attention to the sequence; his performance seems over in a flash. Schiff, at 2'10" into the piece, sounds like he bangs his head on the piano; the rest of his reading is nothing to write home about either. Pogorelich is again too soft-spoken much of the time. Horszowski has all kinds of problems: smears, labored passages, flow disruptions, and he still isn't all that bad.

Gould and Watchorn stress the power and speed of the music while retaining plenty of lyricism. Gould is flying on this one, and the thrill is strong. Watchorn provides a macabre aura to the movement which I like greatly. Perahia covers all bases; he's lyrical, fast, powerful, and elicits a high level of joy from the music. Levin, a little slower than Perahia, has the tempo I like best and provides themost exuberant performance. Argerich uses an irresistable staccato and great accenting. Each of these five versions, in its own way, brings out the best in the music.

Summary for English Suite No. 2:

Gould continues the pattern he established in Suite No. 1: An outstanding performance could well be followed by a below-average one. But he's always very good or better in the movements I find most inspiring. Argerich is the equal of Gould. Her superb Prelude sets the stage for an exciting and idiomatic performance. Perahia is close to Argerich in my estimation and delivers a lot of power and strength in addition to his usual excellent lyricism.

Pogorelich's performance tends to lack distinction except for a transcendent Prelude, and that Prelude is not to be missed. Levin gives another fine performance, Leonhardt's lack of repeats is starting to be irksome, Watchorn displays some commanding fireworks, and Horzowski would have been better served by the recording studio instead of a concert performance. I feel that Schiff's performance was the least enjoyable. Too often, he damages flow through tempo changes or becomes too strong or weak in one hand or both.

For Suite No. 3 in G minor, Argerich and Horszowski depart, but Maria Joao Pires enters the survey. I have found her to do very well in performing Bach. In fact, I can't think of any recording of hers that is not of high quality - looking forward to her interpretation.

Continue on Part 3

English Suites BWV 806-811: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | English – Hewitt | English – Perahia Vol. 2 | English - Rousset | English - Watchorn | Rübsam – Part 4

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