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English Suites BWV 806-811

Bach’s English Suites, Part 6

Continue from Part 5

Donald Satz wrote (October 30, 2000):
English Suite No.6 in D minor, BWV 811 - This might well be the most severe music of the set. The Prelude is actually a prelude and fugue. The opening prelude is based on sustained broken chords and expresses great longing; the fugue strongly exhibits invertible counterpoint and is a superb mix of power and lyricism. This movement is in the 7 to over 8 minute range; it is important that the performer elicit all the variety inherent in the music.

I don't often decide that Schiff is at the highest level, but he is head and shoulders above the other six artists. He catches every nuance and provides a wealth of musical variety and interest. Schiff's right hand is spectacular and not to be missed. He alone provides testimony to the greatness of the movement.

Perahia and Leonhardt get everything right. Their preludes are full of longing; in fact, Leonhardt gives the best prelude. The fugues are powerful and, especially with Perahia, highly lyrical as well.

Levin and Gould give fine readings. Levin wrings as much power out of the movement as possible; I like that very much, although it does cut down on variety. Gould provides more variety in the fugue, but his right hand staccato in the prelude is not very musical.

Angela Hewitt (DG 419218) doesn't reach the level of Gould or Levin due to a relatively intimate fugue. This has its virtues, but I feel that the fugue needs more strength than she offers. I must say that her prelude is the equal of anyone's. Watchorn is at the bottom; his reading seems quite superficial; longing is in short supply and his fugue lacks momentum.

In the bitter/sweet Allemande, I listened last to Gould. Before him, I heard six fine versions which were essentially the same except for varying tempos. But Gould delivers that ceremonial swagger of his that often distinguishes him from the pack and makes his reading the best. That's what happens in the Allemande. It is so refreshing and pleasureable to listen to great and unique music making.

The French-style Courante has an Italian *walking bass* and needs strong momentum. Watchorn and Schiff don't provide it; both sound uncomfortable with the music as if they were becoming acquainted with the piece. The other versions are fine, and Gould again rises above them with an heroic approach and altered pacing. In these last two Suites, it appears that Gould can do no wrong. At the other end, Watchorn is doing poorly in this D minor Suite.

The Sarabande with Double is gorgeous music which is generally dark and tinged with regret, although there are certainly uplifting passages of great beauty. The purpose of the Double is to enhance variety of repeats through additional ornamentation. Gould definitely takes advantage of the variety: staccato here, legato there, mixes it up everywhere. However, I feel that the staccato passages are a bad decision. They add nothing to the music except caricature. When Gould does reside in the legato range, he still is not very attractive due to "cute" uses of ornamentation which I find pesty. In one section of the Double, Gould eschews the staccato and mannerisms and really shows me how great his reading would have been if he stuck to business. The other versions are all excellent; Leonhardt again is not fond of repeats.

The Gavotte series finds Gould exhibiting the same problems in his Sarabande; the man is on a roll, but it's in the wrong direction. Gavotte I is fine music with many nuances and a walking bass, but it's Gavotte II that really has my affection with a mesmerizing drone. It's so delicate and pure. Gould messes up both Gavottes as if it is his intention. Leonhardt and Levin are better, but nothing to write home about. Leonhardt is much too strong in Gavotte II, and Levin plays Gavotte I for power and misses its nuances. Watchorn, Perahia, Schiff, and Hewitt get both Gavottes right and are highly pleasureable.

The concluding Gigue is well described in Schiff's liner notes as "relentless insistence". I would just want to add an exclamation point. Whether thought of as relentless, demonic, catastrophic, or anything in that ballpark, it's not pretty music. It immediately grabs the listener by the throat and tightens its hold as the movement progresses.

Liner notes sometimes do not correspond to the performance, and Schiff is the least relentless and rather mild. Watchorn, Levin, Gould, and Hewitt pack a good wallop but leave plenty of room for improvement. Leonhardt and Perahia cover that distance with powerful readings which express close to the ultimate intensity.

Summary of the Sets:

I strongly recommend the Gould, Leonhardt, and Perahia sets. Neither Gould nor Leonhardt is for everyone. Gould displays plenty of the characteristics which some listeners dislike in his interpretations, and caution is advised for those folks. Leonhardt would not appeal to those expecting repeats to be routinely observed. I find both artists distinctive and usually quite enlightening.

Perahia is the best all-around choice for an excellent and relatively mainstream set of performances. Perahia delivers a high degree of power and speed in addition to fine poetry and lyricism.

Given the excellence of the above three sets, the Watchorn, Levin, and Schiff sets are not quite competitive. Watchorn is generally smooth and slow, but having little of the depth needed for slower paced readings. Levin's performances tend to have a heavy quality which can wear a person down after a Suite or two. Schiff is his usual self; I often find him mannered, fussy, and lacking strength. But he does perform much better in the last two English Suites.

Upcoming reviews will include the Lindsays and the Mosaiques Quartet recordings of Haydn's Opus 76 String Quartets, Bach's Art of Fugue, and baroque violin recordings of his Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin.

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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