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French Suites BWV 812-817

Bach's French Suites, Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Donald Satz wrote (July 19, 2000):
French Suite in E flat major, BWV 815 - Bach's Allemandes are fantastic music. If there is validity to Bach's view that his music came from God, this Allemande is the best exhibit. It's so warm and rich, and elicts within me the strongest feelings of well-being and the sensation that all that's best within me is surging upward from deep within. The music starts low on the keyboard as the bass line moves upward and then downward inexorably; I'm taken in immediately. And I think all the pianists in the survey are as well. Each one gives me those best feelings. Hogwood and Moroney do it slowly, Gavrilov and Schiff do it very fast, and the others use a moderate speed. They are quite similar in conception. They are all great.

Hewitt is not satisfied with the Allemande speaking for itself. She inserts a Praeludium before the Allemande. This decision, as even Hewitt admits, is a dubious one as to accuracy. What is this music? It's a variant of a WTC prelude and not as good either. What I really dislike about it is the extremely romanticized ending which ruins, for me, the beginning of the Allemande. Of course, Hewitt does not agree; "I had often felt that something was needed to emphasize the opening grandeur of the E flat allemande, and this prelude, with its short fughetta and arpeggiated chords, does exactly that." My view is that the Allemande needs nothing more than a great performance; its opening is already perfect and needs no introduction. If I had to listen to this prelude in order to get to the Allemande, I'd have to subtract points from Hewitt. As it is, I can easily de-program it.

I didn't relate conerning the two reviews I read that both stated that Aldwell was at his best in the E flat major Suite, and that may well be true. I mention this now because the Italian-style Courante is peformed superbly by all seven pianists. Again, their conceptions are very similar; the only significant difference I noted is that Gavrilov uses staccato in his right hand; the others don't. I like the piece both ways. It's lively and happy music that was delightful to listen to from each recording. Aldwell is at his best, and so are the others. But there are more movements to consider.

In the elegant and florid Sarabande, each performance is again excellent, insightful, and beautiful. There were a few differences concerning seamless and angular qualities, but they did not impact my listening enjoyment. The main differences were based on tempo: Jarrett and Schiff well under three minutes, Hewitt, Hogwood, and Aldwell about at three minutes, Monroney well over three minutes, and Gavrilov over four minutes. And, each pianist well handled the particular tempo used. About Gavrilov, I never know what tempo he's going to employ; he can be very surprising. With the Sarabande concluded, all versions have been equal in my estimation.

The next dance is a Gavotte which is a 16th century folk dance. Although not in the minor key Suites, this dance is in each major key Suite. The E flat major Gavotte has a canonic texture and is highlighted by the left hand rapidly following the right hand. The music is vivacious, strong, and happy-go-lucky in mood. Tempos range from a little over a minute to the 1'30" range. I prefer the slower tempo; the music is still vibrant and has an enhanced stature and natural sounding flow. Gavrilov and Jarrett use the slower tempo, and both excellently project the music's nature. The other versions are enjoyable but present some problems: Hewitt is too soft-focused at times, Moroney too choppy, Schiff much too cute, and Aldwell and Hogwood a little rushed.

That's not the end of Gavotte business, because Hewitt and Moroney include a Gavotte II. As with Hewitt's Praeludium, the accuracy of including this piece is dubious. The music is highly energetic and more serious than the basic Gavotte. It's fine music played quickly by Hewitt and slowly by Moroney; they are both effective. Although I don't want to make a major issue out of it, I do feel that this good music performed well lifts Moroney and Hewitt to the level of Jarrett and Gavrilov.

The Menuet must be an administratively difficult piece. In some booklets, it's listed after the Air with the Air's timings. In three versions, the Air is played before the Menuet. Regardless, this menuet is a lovely piece possessing great warmth and an even flow. The music only lasts a minute, but it is sumptuous. Most versions are excellent and fully bring out the warm glow; only two do not. Schiff hurries through the piece in 41"; he uses much staccato in the right hand which breaks the music's flow and diminishes its warmth. Hewitt is not sufficiently seamless and loses a little warmth from weak left hand projection.

The Aldwell liner notes describe the Air as having a "stormy character". I don't share that view; I feel that the music is of high energy and joyous nature, best presented with some bounce and angularity. Aldwell doesn't play it stormy, or joyous, or bouncy, or with high energy. My best description of his performance is "steady". Jarrett is the slowest and most seamless; there's little bounce and no angularity. Hewitt, Gavrilov, and Schiff are too "soft" at times; that reduces the overall exuberance of the music. Hogwood and Moroney are excellent. The joy, bounce, and energy of their readings are abundant; they also have all the angularity I could want.

The Gigue has many of the qualities of the Air and requires even more angularity; this is a real jig. The piece is in 6/8 time and the beginning of the second section inverts the first. Concerning that second section, I feel it has a more delicate nature than the rest of the piece. Nowever, most of the versions did not provide it. Aldwell and Moroney did, and they played the entire Gigue beautifully with fine incisiveness; Aldwell has the best "hunting horns". The other versions were fine except for that second section.

For the Suite in E flat major, I choose Moroney. All the versions are excellent through the Sarabande, but Moroney is the only one who continues that pattern for the remainder of the work. Schiff's is the only version which is consistently average or below after the Sarabande. Those are the extremes; the remaining versions are very enjoyable. I do want to stress that Schiff's performances of the first three movements are superb and worth living with the rest of his readings of the Suite. My strongest impression after listening to the versions is how wonderful they all were in three consecutive movements; that was prime-time listening for me.

I've probably been mentioning Moroney more than the others, and I'll remain consistent. I had previously related that I might have been too hard on him in the first suite. I've gone back and re-listened to his reading, and I was hard on him. Although I still feel that his overall level of angularity was too strong and that he provided a rather stern atmosphere, I didn't give enough credit to his incisive playing. With that little adjustment completed, I currently place Moroney as one of the better versions. Schiff continues to lose ground to the others, but his second suite is very good.


Continue on Part 5

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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