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English Suites BWV 806-811

Bach’s English Suites, Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Donald Satz wrote (September 30, 2000):
English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808 - The Prelude is not as wild or demonstrative as the A minor Prelude, but it still packs quite a punch with a great combination of joy and tension. Right-hand performance is very important; it needs to be well projected and own its own piece of the soundstage. I bring this up because Levin's right hand is too weak and has no distinction; the performance ends up sounding like a run-through.

Watchorn, Schiff, and Perahia are very good versions. Perahia is energetic and displays an effective mix of happiness and foreboding. Schiff replaces the foreboding with a pristine and child-like activity that also is quite appealing. Watchorn is much slower than the other artists and presents a more relaxed interpretation. Although pleasureable, there aren't any revelations provided.

Pogorelich, Leonhardt, Gould, and Pires are the superior readings; their common thread is superb right-hand projection and poetry. Pires is powerful and fluid with a somewhat raucous performance that never goes over the edge; her left hand playing is bold and sensational. This prelude plays into Gould's strengths, and he delivers a stunning rendition. Leonhardt is perpetual motion and very exciting. The best version for power and excitement comes from Pogorelich; I thought Pires went to the edge, but Pogorelich really stretches the envelope. Overall, my nod goes to Pires for having the most consistently engaging performance and the best interplay of voices.

I find the Allemande a gorgeous movement significantly more inspiring than the Suite No. 2 Allemande. It is tender, urgent, joyful, and reflective music. Two versions are very fast: Gould and Levin. The differences between the two are pronounced. Levin seems to concentrate on speed and provides a surface reading of little impact; also, he gets rather choppy and awkward at times. Gould, although at break-neck speed, never misses the nuances and actually delivers the most joyous version of all.

Other good versions, in addition to Gould, are Schiff, Perahia, and Watchorn. Schiff is altogether ligher in texture than the others, and it works very well. Perahia provides a very good mainstream reading. Watchorn gives a slow tempo performance of fine depth.

The outstanding Allemandes are from Pogorelich, Pires, and Leonhardt. Pogorelich is very slow at 4 1/2 minutes; Watchorn's slow version is 4 minutes long. In addition to being the most beautiful performance, Pogorelich digs deeply into the emotions of the music. Pires has great accenting, pacing, and a superb display of right-hand execution and poetry; hers is a "public" performance. Leonhardt, although rather slow, comes in at just over 2 minutes; he skips the repeats. In this case, I'll live with the results since his interpretation is so good; Leonhardt's incisiveness is stunning, and he's at the core of the music throughout.

The French-style Courante is next. It's quick, mildly exuberant, and of great forward momentum. Schiff is quick at 2 minutes and certainly exuberant, but his momentum is really bad. He keeps hesitating and sounding of two minds as to tempo - no need to listen to this one anymore. Watchorn comes in at 2'40". It's not that Watchorn sounds too slow; his speed can well handle strong momentum. But Watchorn, although not as extensively as Schiff, also engages in some hesitations which damage the flow. On balance, there's no reason to listen to this one anymore either.

Thankfully, Perahia comes along to set things right. He wants nothing to do with hesitations; he's as fast as Schiff but sounds absolutely dynamic compared to him. The same can be said of Levin, Pires, Leonhardt, and Gould. Pogorelich is as slow as Watchorn, but he has fine momentum and an exquisite staccato from both hands. After some additonal listening, I feel that Gould is a little too fast to fully catch the nuances; Leonhardt's tense version is easily overcome by his skipping both repeats. So along with Perahia and Pogorelich, Pires and and Levin give the excellent performances of the Courante. Both Pires and Levin are particularly powerful.

The Sarabande is extremely introspective, serious, and slow paced music. This is "thinking" music from start to finish and a highly complicated technical creation highlighted by extensive and elaborate embellishments. If there is but one movement of the English Suites which demands many hearings in order to discover all its glories, this is it. And it will take a long time to do so; Pires uses more than nine minutes to perform the Sarabande and Les agrements which are figurations and embellishments more elaborate than in the Sarabande proper; their purpose is to insure a varied repeat of themes. As you might assume, Bach takes full advantage of this opportunity he creates for himself. That's one of the things I love about Bach. He often gives himself super-human challenges and delivers each and every time.

After listening to the different versions, the two most important features I'm looking for are a strong projection and the whole story. Being very slow music, I prefer ample assertion in the delivery. Concerning the whole story, Pogorelich takes almost eight minutes and Pires even more. All the others are under four minutes; I consider this Sarabande a novel, not a short-story. But I must say that each of those six versions is very good with Leonhardt and Watchorn particularly rewarding; each is highly incisive and angular which is due in no small part to using the harpsichord. Although of fine length, Pires does the one thing that kills her performance for me - she is too subdued much of the time with weak projection; my mind starts to wander. That leaves Pogorelich as my favorite reading. It has great assertiveness and poetry and provides the opportunity to savor all the embellishments and the distinctions among the different repeats.

Next is a French dance Gavotte series in ABA sequence. I played this Gavotte on the piano often when I was growing up. Back then, I had no idea how good it could sound; I was lucky if I got the notes right. Gavotte I is vibrant with strong tension; II is more relaxed and reflective. Two versions, Pires and Perahia, give Gavotte II a dream-like quality which is irresistable. The other versions play II in a straight manner which I don't find very appealing and reminds me of my own past playing. Pires has the advantage over Perahia; she is very fast in Gavotte I with great tension, and her left hand playing in both I and II is superb.

The G minor Suite concludes with a Gigue in the typical AABB sequence. The music is quick, powerful, and consistently poetic; the second part inverts the first. Three versions don't have much to offer; Gould is lightening fast and sounds robotic, Pogorelich is too soft-centered, and Watchorn is relatively slow and staid.

Matters improve with Schiff's highly poetic first theme and Perahia's fine balance of voices. Leonhardt could have been at the top of the list except for his skipping of both repeats. Otherwise, his reading is incisive with an infectious beginning to the second theme; it's as if Lucifer and company are rising from the bowels of the universe.

Levin and Pires deliver the best gigues. Levin is very powerful and fully poetic throughout, and Pires has an absolutely outstanding demonic quality in the second theme.

Summary for English Suite No. 3:

Pires most captures my affections. Always poetic and poignant, what really impresses me is the power and momentum she provides. Leonhardt, Pogorelich, and Perahia give very good readings. Schiff, Watchorn, Levin, and Gould are toward the bottom, but their performances are still rewarding. Actually, Levin is quite good once past his hum-drum readings of the Prelude and Allemande.

Pogorelich's recording only has Suites 2 and 3, but I still consider it a must-buy disc. Some of his performances stand tall above the others and are magical listening experiences. My only ris that Pogorelich is sometimes too subdued and soft; I realize that those are his interpretive decisions.

English Suite No. 4 will take us back to just the six full sets. At this point, Gould, Leonhardt, Perahia, and Levin are each in good position to vie for top honors.

Continue on Part 4

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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