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English Suites BWV 806-811

Bach’s English Suites, Part 5

Continue from Part 4

Donald Satz wrote (October 16, 2000):
English Suite No. 5 in E minor, BWV 810 - The Prelude is essentially a three-part fugue of strong urgency and momentum. Horszowski and Schiff give relatively slow performances, but that's the only similarity. Schiff is able to maintain momentum while maximizing the music's lyricism. Horszowski sounds labored even at slow tempo; momentum and lyricism suffer from neglect. In addition to Schiff, other good versions come from Watchorn, Leonhardt, Perahia, and Levin. I should note that Levin is constantly strong without variety in tension levels, and Perahia tends to relax now and then with a resulting loss of momentum.

Gould rises above the other versions with a superb momentum and fine gradations of tension levels. When there's gold in a musical passage, Gould conveys it fully. His version maximizes the Prelude's variety and is the only one which tells me that the piece is a master's creation.

The Allemande, a seemingly reflective piece, finds four versions which are good, one which is excellent, and two which transcend the reflective nature of the music. After playing the four fine versions, the excellent one by Schiff is like a breath of fresh air. He's playful, delicate, and finds all the nuances I would expect from a reflective Bach.

Levin refers to the Allemande as "angular", a trait he certainly does not display. In fact, Leonhardt's is the only angular performance, and he uses it to convey a strong sense of longing which lifts the interpretation to the top level. Joining Leonhardt is Mr. Gould who presents a outstanding display of counterpoint draped in a ceremonial environment; that's a combination I always appreciate. I should report that Gould skips the second theme repeat, and Leonhardt skips both.

The Courante tends to be a dramatic and severe piece, but it has hidden poetry and some sunlight. None of the versions is poor, but only two rise to the occasion - Levin and Gould. Levin's is fast paced, very seamless, and discovers all the lyricism in the music. Gould has a unique pace and brings out the sunlight; his counterpoint is again superb. To my surprise, Perahia has the fastest tempo, but it acts against finding much poetry. Horszowski manages to work his way through the Courante, as he did in the first two movements.

Next is a highly introspective Sarabande of rather dark mood. Each version is rewarding except for Watchorn and Levin; Watchorn sounds like he's going through the motions, and I do not appreciate Levin's pacing and accenting which gives the music a "circus" element. Horszowski does much better here as the slow tempo allows him to concentrate on some artistry. Perahia gives the most tender performance, Leonhardt the most incisive. Gould adds some absurd ornamentation which detracts from what could have been another outstanding interpretation.

A fast paced Passepied I and II follow with I in the minor key, II in the major key. As one would expect, I is darker and more dramtic than II which has an uplifting quality. After listening to each version, I can definitely confirm that I like the music best played in a relatively seamless manner with a strong foundation. With Horszowski, I don't even think about those matters, because he muddles his way through the piece; this is a throw-away performance. Perahia, Watchorn, and Schiff are better, but not in the seamless mode and their foundation is weak. Gould, Leonhardt and Levin are the ones that provide the foundation, a great deal of poetry, and excellent counterpoint. I do wish that Leonhardt had observed the Paasepied I da capo, but his performance is quite impressive with a desireable aristocratic beauty.

The concluding Gigue is a relatively stern and very powerful piece with the second theme inverting the first theme; the beginning of both themes has that "world gone crazy" sensation which I often feel from Bach's music. For me, excitement must be as strong as possible and of the type that's just about over the edge. Each version is very impressive except for Horszowski who is low on excitement. With the others, the one I was listening to at the time seemed the best. Levin is relentless, and that's great for this music. Gould is very fast and thrilling. Schiff and Perahia are the most poetic but never lose sight of the basic messages. Leonhardt and Watchorn drive the music hard and convincingly.

Summary for Suite No. 5:

This is Gould's suite all the way. No other version at any time does better than Gould. Leonhardt leads the remaining versions which are all fine accounts except for Horszowski.

For Suite No. 6, the six sets will be joined by Angela Hewitt on a DG disc coupled with other Bach works; I have fond memories of this recording.

Continue on Part 6

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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