Donald Satz wrote (July 18, 2000):
French Suite in B minor BWV 814 - The B minor Allemande is a little "darker" than the C minor and gives a more prominent role to the left hand. The piece begins with imitation between both hands, and the second section provides an inverted version of the opening theme. Although not quite as immediately attractive as the other two minor key Allemandes, continued listening well brings out its beauties and contrast between pensive and urgent passages. I prefer this music on the harpsichord; its tangy and more angular sound is perfect.
Two versions, Monroney and Jarrett, reveal the full depth and beauty of the B minor Allemande. Moroney's is a dark and slow performance of great incisiveness; it never drags or becomes too heavy. Jarrett, at a moderate speed, opens up the music to new vistas. The sun shines through every note and chord. But this isn't some trivialized interpretation with little depth; Jarrett provides a panorama of themes under the umbrella of Bach's subtlety in how he often writes joyous and life-affirming music. And Jarrett's harpsichord sound is fantastic. The remaining versions are very good. Gavrilov delivers his noted dream-like performance, Aldwell is smooth and aristocratic, and Ms. Hewitt provides the "crank up the volume" version; she is the most exciting with a fast pace.
The French-style Courante is quick paced and displays a continuing sequence of motion and calm, a feature which can be hypnotic in the best performances. Also crucial is that this piece has a little smile on its face; severity is not called for. Gavrilov is fast, thrilling, and possesses that hypnotic feature. Hewitt is slower but just as rewarding with a greater variety of dynamic shading and accenting. Less fine, although still enjoyable, are Hogwood, Moroney, and Aldwell; it's good to see Moroney eschew any display of severity. But Jarrett falls into that trap with a dour performance that never gets off the ground. Schiff is no better, playing too fast with uninteresting results.
The B minor Sarabande presents us with more ravishing music which is bitter/sweet to the core. Six versions do a great job and give me a fine range of variety. Gavrilov is EXTREMELY slow and poetic/dream-like, good for late night or reflective listening. If you like your Sarabandes on the quick side, Schiff and Aldwell should fit the bill, and they don't lose any poetry. Hogwood is angular and deliciously sweet when needed. Moroney, even more than Hogwood, highlights the music's sweet nature. Jarrett is relatively smooth with a fine mainstream interpretation. Each of the above is highly rewarding. Hewitt is not as enjoyable; she is a little lacking in sweetness, and in the more dramatic passages, she sounds more like a pianist of romantic-era works.
For the first and only time, the Anglaise is introduced to the French Suites. It's the French term for an English country dance. The music has long runs and leaps in the melody line. It is energetic and delightful music which also has an infectious beat when played superbly. And that describes the Jarrett and Hogwood performances. Jarrett's is the slowest reading and Hogwood is fairly quick, but the primary features are perfect pacing, incisive accenting, and my perception that these two gentlemen enjoyed playing the piece immensely. Gavrilov, who must have the slowest Sarabande on record, here gives us the fastest Anglaise of the group. It works very well; Gavrilov is particularly effective in the first section. Hewitt is a little soft in the first section, but is absolutely dynamic in the second. Aldwell gives a good all-around performance. Moroney gives a good account which was a little too choppy in pacing for my tastes. Schiff's is the only version I wouldn't recommend; an intergral part of his pacing seems to be very short hesitations which I found consistently distracting.
Next are the Menuets I and II. Menuet I has an eerie first theme generally played staccato, then becomes stirring and lovely music; Menuet II is darkly chromatic, very interesting, and beautiful. One thing I have to say about that first theme is that I do not appreciate its repeat; even worse, most versions do not vary matters much when they play it. But Aldwell does by switching from staccato to legato, a nice touch. He then immediately ruins things after the repeat by giving an overdose of prominence to the bass notes. His Menuet II sounds somewhat uninvolved. Aldwell's is the one performance I can't recommend. The others are very good, although not one is excellent throughout. Some highlights: Schiff flies through the music successfully with ample lyricism. Gavrilov is fairly slow in Menuet I, extremely slow in II, and he holds my interest throughout. Hogwood, in the intial theme is uninspiring and then he repeats it verbatim; however, every other section is spot-on. Hewitt is a little different in the initial theme, alternating between staccato and legato in the right hand.
The ever-concluding Gigue is next, and this one is very extrovert, angular, and happy. Schiff is too fast at well under two minutes; everything sounds like a series of unrelated and blurred experiences which just don't hold together. The other versions are better, but each one is a little too fast and/or not angular enough except for Hogwood. His reading, the slowest, almost sounds like different music. The exuberance is abundant throughout, accenting is outstanding, and the angular and tangy sounds from Hogwood's harpsichord are a delight.
There was a good distribution of excellence in the C minor Suite among the versions. Jarrrett, Hogwood, and Moroney were best, with Hewitt and Gavrilov close behind. Aldwell had his good and bad moments, while Schiff occupied the cellar.
That's it for the minor key Suites. At the top, there's close traffic among Jarrett, Hogwood, Gavrilov, and Hewitt. At the bottom, it's tight among Moroney, Aldwell, and Schiff. However, Moroney was fine in the D minor and great in the C minor. It's certainly possible that I was too hard on him in the A minor. Perhaps he has a particular style which I just didn't initially appreciate. At any rate, I'll take this into consideration once the survey is over.