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French Suites BWV 812-817

Bach's French Suites, Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Donald Satz wrote (July 17, 2000):
Earlier today, I checked to see if I had any magazine reviews of Aldwell's French Suites, and I had two of them. Gramophone was lukewarm toward the set, enjoying playing that is "direct and straightforward, unaffected by eccentricity or false sentimentality, and exuding an uncomplicated technical security that allows both pianist and listener to concentrate on the music".

On the other hand, "there are times, though, when this selfless stance borders on the inexpressive". The reviewer went on to note his opinion of the superiority of Hewitt's set. The Classic CD reviewer gave Aldwell the highest recommendation, stating that "this recording stimulates with every bar, the playing at once lucid and searching, dazzling and profound". In my opinion, the "stimulates with every bar" premise already was shattered thoroughly by Aldwell's D minor Suite. Just another instance of generous reviews on the part of Classic CD.

French Suite in C minor BWV 813 - The C minor Allemande is as rewarding and sumptuous as the D minor. As with the D minor, this Allemande also has long musical lines and needs a relatively seamless performance and also needs to tug at the emotions. Moroney and Hogwood are enjoyable, but they engage in short and slight pauses in the pacing which is a little distracting. The other versions are outstanding. Jarrett is the most urgent, Aldwell provides a highly aristocratic/processional reading, Gavrilov gives an exquisite delicacy to the music, Hewitt elicits from me a strong feeling of serenity, and Schiff is the most poetic. There are a number of magical moments in each of these five performances.

A higher level of energy comes our way with the Courante which is more of an Italian Corrente with a fluid 3/4 time and two part texture. Strength, momentum, and lyricism are, for me, the basics of performing this piece well. Schiff is the fastest and does very well; his momentum is continuous, ornamentation is tasteful, and there is consistent strength in his performance. Gavrilov is equally effective with a fine staccato approach and great pacing. The two other piano versions are not as good. Aldwell's trills sound rather clumsy to me, and Hewitt is soft on accenting at times; both problems tend to dampen momentum, energy, and fluidity. The sharper tone of the harpsichord is delicious for this courante, and the three versions are the equal of Gavrilov and Schiff. Jarrett's reading, one minute shorter than Schiff's, easily keeps up the momentum and is highly lyrical.

The Sarabande is a flowing and sad piece in two sections, the second needing a little more "edge" than the first. Aldwell is the fastest and least effective reading; his incisiveness is weak and he allows the faster pace to make the music of less consequence. To put it another way, Adwell's is the only version which doesn't reveal that the music is outstanding and beautiful. Hogwood, Jarrett, and Schiff are superb throughout the Sarabande. Hewitt is gorgeously pensive in the first section and appropriately incisive in the second. Gavrilov is dream-like and most tender in the first section, an interpretation which is not equaled by any other version. Moroney has a perfect degree of incisiveness without any trace of harshness. With any of the performances other than Aldwell's, you are in for a special treat.

An outstanding and infectious Air follows the Sarabande. The pace of the Air is fairly quick and has a fine delicacy provided by the right hand. This is not music of a heavy nature, and none of the versions were heavy or too strong. In fact, every version was excellent or better. I started with Schiff and Gavrilov, thinking that it wouldn't be easy to better them and that they might be two of the best in the survey. In a sense, they ended up as two of the worst. I played Hogwood third and the music opened up even more; in addition to delivering everything provided by Schiff and Gavrilov, Hogwood makes the piece his own unique connection with Bach. The pacing is perfect, and there's a deep and subdued optimism and joy along with great playfulness. Feelings I'd like to have every minute of the day were flowing through me; this is a magical performance.

Going further through the survey, I noted that each version was sounding as good as Schiff and Gavrilov. Then I ended with Hewitt, and I was again listening to a very special interpretation. Hewitt's not magic in the sense that I didn't feel that I was being taken on a journey to the stars or travelling through time. Instead, Hewitt and Bach took me to the inner recesses of the music where I could appreciate and examine each note and musical strand; it was quite an experience. I'll just note that Hewitt's ornamentations and trills are perfect, accenting is just right, and her sense of urgency is sublime. And all this from an "air". Bach is something else, and so are Hewitt and Hogwood in this piece.

There are differences of opinion concerning the correct sources of the Minuet. Earlier sources just have Menuet I, while more recent sources have Menuet II as well. Gavrilov and Jarrett just go with I. Since I happen to think that II, although not as musically inspired as I, adds to the pleasures of the Suite, I have to subtract points for leaving it out. And that's a shame because both performances of Menuet I are excellent. Moroney, Hogwood, and Schiff give fine readings. Moroney is a little choppy in Menuet I but outstanding in II. Hogwood reverses the order with an overly severe Menuet II, but fast and toe-tapping I. Schiff is fast throughout with a strong right hand, but his pacing is not to my liking.

Aldwell and Hewitt are excellent throughout. Hewitt has a superb sense of the relationship between both hands, expertly conveying the left hand as subservient but of crucial importance to the right hand which never lords it over the left - just perfect. Aldwell provides a highly delicate yet quietly extrovert reading of Menuet I with the right degree of drama when called for; his Menuet II is more emphatic and possesses fine tension and great poetry.

The concluding Gigue, although much less severe than the D minor Gigue, retains it choppy rhythm and strong angularity. Schiff and Gavrilov engage in some annoying ornamentation, and I didn't care for their pacing. The other performances are very good with Jarrett being excellent in both sections - infectious pacing in the first section and exquisite angularity in the second.

Overall, the performances are better in the Suite in C minor than its predecessor. A significant part of that improvement comes from Moroney who is competitive with the other versions this time. Hewitt, Jarrett, and Hogwood offer the best music-making; Hewitt and Hogwood have their transcendent Airs and much else also, and Jarrett is excellent throughout the Suite.

I might as well conclude Part 2 with some words about sound quality, which I've mentioned very little. That's probably because there isn't much to say, since it really isn't a factor. All the recordings have very good or excellent sound engineering.


Continue on Part 3

French Suites BWV 806-811: Details
Until 1951 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | Freom 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
FS - P. Anderszeweski | FS - B. Brookshire | FS - D. Cates [Satz] | FS - D. Cates [Schwartz] | FS - T. Dart | FS - A. Klein | FS - J. Payne | FS - B. Rannou [McElhearn] | FS - B. Rannou [Satz] | Rübsam - Part 1 | FS - M. Suzuki
General - Part 1 | FS - B. Bookshire | FS - D. Cates | FS - G. Gould | FS - B. Rannou

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