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French Suites BWV 812-817

Thurston Dart (Clavichord)

Review: French Suites by Thurston Dart

K-1

Thurston Dart plays Bach: French Suites & Purcell

French Suites BWV 812-817 [8:25, 7.18, 8.52, 7.56, 10.10, 9.20]
Henry Purcell: New Irish Tune [1.03], Rigadoon in C major [0.53], Sefauchi's Farewell [2.33], Minuet in D minor [1.25], Ground in C minor [2.37], Air in D minor [1.21]
William Croft: Ground [2.28]

Thurston Dart (Clavichord)

Ismeron (from L'Oiseau-Lyre)

1961

CD / TT: 64:32

Buy this album at: Ismeron

Kirk McElhearn wrote (July 8, 2001):
Occasionally, one comes across individuals with a mission. This is the case with J. Martin Stafford. He has managed to save several rare, yet essential recordings from the abyss of forgetting, especially this recording by Thurston Dart.

A clavichordist and harpsichordist, most of Dart's solo recordings were of English music. He recorded five LPs of keyboard music by the great English composers, such as Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and others, on harpsichord and chamber organ. He also recorded a selection of organ music by English composers. Yet, one must bear in mind that this was all done in the 1950ís, a period when early music was far more confidential than it is today.

In addition to these great recordings of English music, Dart also recorded Bach's French Suites, a selection of works by Froberger, and some pieces by Purcell and other English composers, on the clavichord. This recording is certainly unique, not only for its historical interest, but also for the instrument.

The clavichord is a small, rectangular box-like instrument, with a very simple mechanism, that was probably the domestic instrument par excellence in 17th and 18th century Germany, as well as in other countries. Its simple construction and small size made it easy to have at home, and even to carry around. It is known that Bach owned clavichords, and one can imagine that, when playing with his family, this instrument might have been used often.

But this recording is not only valuable for the above reasons. It is also one of the most moving recordings of the French suites available. The clavichord gives a musician the unique possibility of playing vibrato (known as bebung) on a keyboard instrument. This means that a performer has a much vaster palette of effects on the clavichord than on most other keyboard instruments. In spite of its limitations - it is a very soft instrument, its tone is limited because of its short strings, and its resonance is also limited because of its size - the clavichord is highly expressive.

Dart's reading of the French suites is quite a masterpiece. With judicious choices of tempo, he makes each movement sing. The slow movements take on a different emotion on the clavichord than on harpsichord - and Dart makes full use of bebung in these movements. The faster movements are lively and energetic, and Dart instils far more sensitivity into these than most harpsichordists. Some of the movements in these suites are quite playful, and Dart retains that feeling, giving them the utmost liberty and joy.

The additional pieces on this CD, by Purcell and Croft, are also excellent. The brief Purcell pieces take on a totally new character when played on the clavichord, and, as for the French suites, Dart's performance of them is impeccable.

There are some minor drawbacks to this recording, though. First of all, given that this was recorded in 1961, Dart chose to play none of the repeats in the French suites, so they could all fit on one LP. This is not a major default, but the suites are much shorter than in most recordings, and they leave this listener wanting to hear more. The only other minor problem is the fact that each suite is only one track, as opposed to being one track for each movement.

In any case, J. Martin Stafford has done an excellent job remastering these recordings - the sound is as clean as possible. He deserves kudos for saving these great recordings from oblivion.

An excellent performance, and a very good recording of a unique historical document. Beyond its interest as a historical recording, and the use of the clavichord, this is one of the finest recordings of Bach's French Suites available. (And the price is right too!) Every Bach lover should own this disc.

CONTACT DETAILS: http://ourworld-top.cs.com/ismeron99/index.html

 

Feedback to the Review

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 9, 2001):

[To Kirk McElhearn] Indeed!

A few further notes:

- The original LP issue of the French suites similarly has a banding of one per suite, three per side. Obviously Dart wanted the performance of each suite to be experienced as a unified piece, not just a collection of short movements. That continuity of feeling informs his playing, too.

- The companion disc of Froberger works played on clavichord is similarly essential. And suites there are similarly given one track.

- Dart had an interestingly divided career. He deliberately alternated five-year periods of research and playing, convinced that each side informs the other and that both must be taken absolutely seriously full-time.

- Dart was also the guiding influence behind the infamous set of Brandenburgs (by Marriner and Munrow) where the trumpet part of #2 is played an octave lower on a horn, and the recorder parts of #4 on higher recorders. This again illustrates his experimental spirit: do something iconoclastic with conviction so everyone can hear the result of the idea. He liked to get people thinking in new ways instead of following habit...and ideas are for the public, not just for musicologists.

- (small correction) A clavichord's volume is limited not by the length of the strings but by the way it produces sound: hitting a string at its end is a particularly energy-inefficient way to get it to vibrate. (That said, it produces lovely if quiet results....)

Donald Satz wrote (July 9, 2001):

Dart may have wanted each Suite to be experienced as a unified work, but the disc buyer fortunately still controls that matter. Separate tracks for each movement of a suite are common for the convenience and advantage to the buyer.

Someone else could say that the French Suites should be experienced as a whole, and there would only be one track. The reissued Schiff Goldberg Variations has six tracks. Does that indicate that Schiff or anyone else feels there are six unified works on the disc? Most of the time, I would assume that reduced track numbers is just a case of being lazy.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (July 9, 2001):

Bradley Lehman wrote:
< - The companion disc of Froberger works played on clavichord is similarly essential. And suites there are similarly given one track. >
I will be reviewing that one soon as well.

< - (small correction) A clavichord's volume is limited not by the length of the strings but by the way it produces sound: hitting a string at its end is a particularly energy-inefficient way to get it to vibrate. (That said, it produces lovely if quiet results....) >
I said the tone was limited by the string length. Meaning that there is less of a range of tone than in a larger instrument. I may not have been correct in this statement in any case...

Kirk McElhearn wrote (July 9, 2001):

Donald Satz wrote:
< Dart may have wanted each Suite to be experienced as a unified work, but the disc buyer fortunately still controls that matter. Separate tracks for each movement of a suite are common for the convenience and advantage to the buyer. >
And for reviewers like you! :-)

< Someone else could say that the French Suites should be experienced as a whole, and there would only be one track. The reissued Schiff Goldberg Variations has six tracks. Does that indicate that Schiff or anyone else feels there are six unified works on the disc? Most of the time, I would assume that reduced track numbers is just a case of being lazy. >
No, if anything, it makes more work. Each movement is recorded aedited separately, so, putting several movements in one track means more work (albeit not much).

I don't understand, however, why anyone would do the above - or the similar way the Gilbert Goldbergs are cut up. No one hits the random button when listening to the Goldbergs (although I admit to doing it when listening to the WTC).

Donald Satz wrote (July 9, 2001):

[To Kirk McElhearn] I never hit the random button - would be too spontaneous for me. It is harder to review movements when they aren't tracked, but a good knowledge of the general length of a movement and the particular performer's tempo make it much easier to find. Richter's GV on Teldec is about the hardest one - only two or three tracks.

 

French Suites BWV 812-817: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | French - Brookshire | French - Cates | French - Dart | French - Payne | French - Rannou | Rübsam - Part 1 | French - Suzuki

Thurston Dart: Short Biography | Philomusica of London | Recording of Vocal Works | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: French Suites by Thurston Dart | Menuhinís Orchestral Suites

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