Donald Satz wrote (July 20, 2000):
French Suite in G major, BWV 816 - The G major Allemande is "cooler" than the E flat major but still a lovely piece of music. Tempo also turns out to be important to me. Gavrilov is very fast at 2'32', and I think that's not enough time to savor the music. Another problem for Gavrilov is that he plays the piece in a seamless style, enhancing the warmth of the music. Schiff, at 2'43", sounds rushed although he is sufficiently cool. Hewitt is just a few seconds slower than Schiff, but she makes the tempo "right" for me; hers is a gorgeous rendition. Aldwell is a little slower than Hewitt, and his performance is just as convincing. The harpsichord versions are the slowest and none the worse for it. Jarrett's is the warmest of the three, but there's still plenty of bite. Moroney is the slowest and his tempo sounds perfect. Overall, these are excellent performances excepting for Schiff who is still enjoyable and Gavrilov which I feel is a "throw-away" version.
It's time for joy, gaiety, and effervescence with the Italian-style Courante. This is bubbly/bouncy music and very busy as well; the left hand has a very active part in the proceedings. Gavrilov and Schiff continue having problems. Schiff sometimes allows the bass notes to overwhelm the music, and Gavrilov's seamless approach removes the bouncy aspect of the Courante. Jarrett also has little bounce, being a little sober in execution. Hogwood, Aldwell, and Hewitt do very well, but it's Moroney who rises to the top with a performance that I think would be difficult to match. It has joy, bounce, and effervescence in abundance throughout the piece, and these qualities keep growing as the music progresses.
I consider the G major Sarabande to be one of Bach's greatest and most sublime creations. It is a slow-paced piece which can cover a wide spectrum of themes and emotions in a subtle but very deep manner. It's always hard to know why and from where certain images come into one's mind when listening to a particular work or section. For reasons that escape me, this Sarabande, which had me in its grasp right from the start, connected me to a Bach funeral with the Sarabande being played at Bach's request which he made of his family when his demise was near. The particular themes convered by the Sarabande range from tenderness, sadness, regret, remorse, and the remembrance of better times, to qualities of elegance, aristocracy, drama, solemnity, and a sense of substantial weight combined with exquisite poetry.
Above all, the music is thoroughly gorgeous. If the performer does not fully bring out the beauty of the piece, it's thumbs-down. Fortunately, all seven versions provide the full beauty of the Sarabande.
Among the piano versions, Aldwell and Hewitt give me the full spectrum of the music's themes; Schiff and Gavrilov mainly cover half of them. timings of the versions range from about four to five minutes, quite long for a Suite movement. Gavrilov's tempo is at the upper end, but he's always rewarding and interesting. He is soft-spoken, seamless, and very smooth; his acoustic is a little hazy, and this feature adds to the dream-like atmosphere of the performance. What Gavrilov does not provide is any significant sense of grandeur, seriousness of purpose, or weight. Schiff's tempo is relatively quick, and the hazy acoustic and dream-like approach of Gavrilov is now replaced with a clear and crisp soundstage and a performance which emphasizes the freely poetic nature of the music. Still, the stronger themes of the Sarabande are lacking in Schiff's interpretation. I definitely do not want to give the impression that Schiff and Gavrilov are not highly rewarding; they are superb performances if one is looking for beauty, tenderness, and poetry, but not much concerned with the heavier aspects. Having been an Economics major, I can confidently state that Schiff and Gavrilov give a micro-interpretation as fine as I could imagine.
Aldwell and Hewitt, however, provide a macro-approach. They cover the spectrum of themes and emotions. The have more edge, drama, dynamic shading, and seriousness of purpose without sacrificing the best qualities in the Schiff and Gavrilov versons. Aldwell is highly aristocratic, Hewitt is crisp and stunningly detailed. Both are transcendent interpretations which represent, for me, the pinnacle of musical inspiration and execution.
The three harpsichord versions are just as good as Hewitt and Aldwell. That spicy/tangy harpsichord quality is irresistable. More important, each of the performers invests the music with the full range of themes and emotions available from the Sarabande. Moroney is very slow, Jarrett a little faster, and Hogwood has one of the quicker versions. That's all fine. Each one tells me that the pacing is perfect. I certainly want this Sarabande played at my funeral, and I want Aldwell doing it. He'd likely love a little vacation in the land of enchantment (New Mexico).
On the surface, it would be reasonable to assume that the most difficult music to perform well would be "masterful" music of depth and complexity. However, I often find while doing these surveys that it's the other way around. As examples, the previous Sarabande is a deep as one could hope for, yet all the performers are excellent or better. The following Gavotte is relatively simple and feel-good music with bounce and energy. Just play it straight and you can't lose.
Well, there are a few somewhat losing performances of this Gavotte. Schiff is one of the masters of taking a simple piece of music and ruining it through his insistence on playing it "differently". In this case, the very first notes told me that his performance would not be pleasureable. They were choppy, disjointed, and much too softly projected. The rest of the reading was in the same vein - no bounce, little joy. These qualities were replaced with a level of cuteness which I found very annoying. Hewitt's problem concerns her stylistic preference to provide a wide range of dynamics and moods within each piece of music. It's often very effective, but sometimes it is just the wrong approach. Every performer needs to make adjustments from his/her basic style to meet the needs of the music. Now I'm sure that Hewitt felt that was exactly what she did with the Gavotte, but it seems to me that she placed her style above the needs of the music. How so? She is very soft-focused in the first section, then blazes away with power in the second section. My perception is that the first section has little life to it, then all of a sudden, there's an abrupt change as if the second section has no connection to the first.
The Aldwell liner notes indicate that this Gavotte continues the "intimate" ways of the Sarabande. Beyond my view that there's nothing intimate about the G major Gavotte, Aldwell puts no intimacy into his performance at all; it is basically a "heavy" performance which can not stand up to the better versions. Jarrett, although not as heavy as Aldwell, is quite sober, and that's not a quality that meshes well with the music. In this case, Jarrett allows his penchant for smooth and seamless performances to get in the way of serving the music.
That leaves Moroney, Gavrilov, and Hogwood who gladly accept the music for what it is and then play it expertly. Their readings are joyful, energetic, and have just the right bounce.
Next is a dance new to the French Suites which also is used in the sixth Suite, the Bourree. A Bourree is a 16th century French country dance, and this particular bourree is like the previous Gavotte in that it is relatively simple and joyful music; in this Bourree, the main theme is inverted in the second section. And as with the Gavotte, some versions don't find that simple = easy. Before I start in with my review of the versions, I should relate that there's a series of descending notes which occur about three times during the Bourree. In my view, this series is crucial to full enjoyment of the piece and needs to be played strongly and fast. provides the contrast to the rather whimsical nature of the rest of the music and is where the excitement and adrenelin is at its peak.
Gavrilov and Hewitt do not play the descending note series strongly at all; the contrast is minimized as is the excitement of the performance. Gavrilov has another problem which is a killer - he actually pauses/stops two times during his performance, as if he needed to sneak a quick drag from a cigarette or some other substance. What was he thinking? The music needs to keep going to maintain momentum; he lets it die on the vine. The other five versions are fine representations of the Bourree. The timing for the Hogwood version is listed at over 2 minutes, and I was looking forward to hearing what Hogwood does with such a slow speed. Alas, his version is closer to one minute but is highly effective.
Now comes another dance new to the French Suites which is only in the G major Suite; the Loure is an elegant 17th century French theatre dance. This Loure sounds like a very slow gigue. It has a halting rhythm and is strongly ornamented. The mood of the music is subdued, intimate, and introspective with a high level of elegance and conversational matter. Hewitt inserts what I consider unwarranted drama through her penchant for rather extreme dynamic changes; hers is the dance of a couple in the throes of schizophrenia. Schiff is really out to lunch. He's all over the place with tempo and dynamics. At any point in time, Hewitt is walking steadily; Schiff is tripping out. Just imagine the gyrations of a Joe Cocker or David Bryne from the Talking Heads, and you're at the heart of Schiff's performance. Hogwood must be very impressed with the halting rhythm as he makes it the cornerstone of his performance; I didn't like some of his very short note values or his pacing. He also sounded somewhat bland.
Aldwell, Jarrett, Gavrilov, and Moroney are excellent. Aldwell gives a very elegant, introspective, and detailed reading which is at an average/moderate tempo and is also highly conversational. Jarrett has delicious ornamentation and is the version I'd most want to dance to if I had to dance. Gavrilov is back with a dreamy version, and this time, it fits the music beautifully. He is very slow, and that works too. Moroney, a little like Hogwood, has some odd note values, but his incisiveness is so stunning that I can easily blow off the note problem.
The concluding Gigue is no ordinary gigue; it just might be the best gigue in any composer's repertoire; it is also very well known. How to describe it? It's brilliant, playful, extroverted, exciting, fast, wild, busy, angular, dramatic/dark/dangerous in many spots, retains a lyrical nature, and has great momentum written all over it. It conjures up within me the image of young range riders of yesterday galloping down the trail just to catch the wind and have a good time, but they have moments when they are confronted by a gang of rustlers and it's dangerous and tough going. Because of the qualities I noted, I find the harpsichord perfectly suited for this music. Of course, a great piano interpretation will overcome any disadvantages. But there isn't one in this bunch.
Aldwell is one of the slower versions, and he sounds slow and not busy enough. Basically, he is understated in this piece, and that's bad for the gigue; he doesn't dig deeply in the music, he's not sufficiently playful or brilliant or dramatic or much of anything else. "Understated and sober" is the tune. Schiff is no better and seems to miss the thrust of the music entirely. Bass notes can be too loud, high notes are too soft, and Schiff often plays games with the momentum. But, he continues to be cute and disjointed. If all I had for listening to this superb music was Schiff's version, I'd never know this is great art. Hewitt is too soft-focused most of the time. Where's the danger, drama, excitement, and wildness? No, Hewitt is tame compared to what I'm looking for in this piece.
With Gavrilov, all is not entirely lost. He puts the danger and all the other qualities back into the music. Unfortunately, he's so fast that those qualities fly by in a blurr. But at least he's trying to get it right. Give that man a point for effort.
With the harpsichord versions, we essentially enter another world where it is so much easier to sound wild, busy, angular, and brilliant. Of course, a person playing a harpsichord has as much potential to screw things up as a person playing a piano. To their credit, none of the three do anything like that. They each know what's at the heart of this music, and they execute it wonderfully. Jarrett is relatively slow but abundantly exciting with plenty of edge, even though he is the most seamless of the three. He brings out all the best qualities in the music, and I would describe his performance as "one for all seasons". Hogwood and Moroney don't cover the spectrum as well as Jarrett, but they take me on a wild edge of the seat ride which puts them in Jarrett's league.
Two overall front-runners who did not fare well in the G major Suite, Hewitt and Gavrilov, are no longer front-runners. Hewitt falls apart in the dances after the Sarabande, and Gavrilov started off that way in the Allemande and Courante. Schiff is also not competitive in this suite and was consistently below-par. Aldwell did well, but not as well as the harpsichord versions. I favor Moroney for the G major with Hogwood and Jarrett fairly close to his level.
I definitely don't want to come off as having a bias for the harpsichord. I love the piano, and I love it with Bach dearly. The problem as I see it, since the harpsichord versions are looking best right now with just one suite to go, is the pianists. Overall, they have been much more indulgent of their own personal styles and often seem to think that Bach's music needs more than it gives. With that thought process, they sometimes don't even relay what the music has to offer; they make substitutions of dubious merit. Oh well, I'm a little down on these folks at the moment. I can better understand a pianist not doing well because he/she does not have the ability to do any better, than a pianist with all the capabilites required who makes intepretive decisions which I don't like, dampen my enjoyment, and frankly sound in opposition to the music at hand. But, as Scarlett O'Hara is fond of saying, "There's always the next Suite".