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French Suites BWV 812-817

Bach's French Suites, Part 6

Continue from Part 5

Donald Satz wrote (July 21, 2000):
French Suite in E major, BWV 817 - The Allemande is delightful and playful music which has a warm glow, smoothly flowing foundation, strength, and optimism. Schiff is fastest and he's very exciting and playful. But he's also lacking a strong foundation, sounding a little whimsical. The same commments apply to Gavrilov, although he is slightly slower than Schiff. Aldwell has the strength and much else, but he engages in four significant slow-downs which damage the music's flow. I enjoyed these three versions very much; they just don't quite make the top level.

That level is occupied once again by the harpsichord versions with Hewitt joining their company. On my first listening, I didn't like her reading at all; it seemed too slow after listening to Schiff. Second listening and she sounded real good. The third had me hooked; she's exciting, strong, warm, playful, and urgent at the right moments. Jarrett is hypnotic with the warmth and flow of his seamless reading. Hogwood has more bite and gets equally fine results. Moroney is much slower than the others, and he succeeds splendidly with an incisive reading of strong depth.

The two part Italian style Courante is fast paced, exciting, and generally of positive mood. The exception to the positive mood comes at the end of each theme and its repeat; this concluding passage conveys to me a sense of danger and frenetic mental activity. It's a great ending to each theme as it provides the basic contrast of the piece and is the most exciting passage as well. Among the harpsichord versions, Hogwood delivers the ending in superb fashion - wild, sinister, and with strong accenting. Jarrett is too well-buttoned and sober; the end passes by without strong impact. The lack of strong impact also applies to Moroney whose accenting is too weak and smooth. None of the piano versions hits the mark either. Schiff's bass notes are strong, but his right hand is subdued. Aldwell's performance is very good, but he's too well behaved in that ending passage as are Hewitt and Gavrilov. Leaving Hogwood aside, I could differentiate among the other versions. But ultimately, only Hogwood lifts the E major Courante to a masterful level, and the other versions become superfluous.

The Sarabande is quite beautiful, slow, and intimate; however, a relatively strong projection is needed to insure that the music does not drag. Speaking of music that drags, Gavrilov takes over 6 minutes; that's more than 2 minutes slower than any other version. Now I'm all for slowing things down, savoring the music, and having greater opportunity to enjoy the details. But Gavrilov sounds nearly stationary, and details are difficult to key on with Gavrilov's soft projection and hazy acoustic.

Aldwell and Hewitt are much better with readings a little over 3 minutes. Even so, their performances tend to drag at times due to weak projection. The remaining four versions are excellent. Schiff is freely poetic and quite incisive with strong projection. The harpsichord versions have no problem with projection, and although Moroney's version lasts almost 4 minutes, it never drags due to its outstanding incisiveness.

There are five dance movements after the Sarabande, more than in any other of the Suites. The Gavotte has a swinging rhythm and needs to be played in an exuberant and animated fashion. Jarrett is slowest, and that retards his exuberance. Hewitt is much too soft-focused throughout with the result also constituting a lack of exuberance. Schiff's problem is that his rhythm is more choppy than swinging. The other versions are very good - they swing exuberantly.

Next is the one and only Polonaise (originally called a Polish minuet) in the set. It's a lovely piece featuring tenderness and intimacy. Projection can be even throughout, although there are passages where increased emphasis is not uncalled for. Two versions do not pass muster. Gavrilov is appropriately strong except where it's needed most; at those points, his soft playing is mush. He essentially gives us an "inverted" reading. Hogwood has no problems with projection, but his left hand staccato largely removes any thoughts of tenderness. These two performances can be dispensed with. The other five are highly enjoyable.

The main highlight of the Menuet is that the left hand figure keeps interrupting the right hand melody. This is not an abrupt interruption, but a smooth one which gives the piece a hushed quality. Only Hogwood does not share this conception; he is strongly abrupt and damages the music's flow and serenity. All the other verisons are very good. Gavrilov is fastest and uses staccato in his right hand, all to good effect. Based on the timings, I thought that Schiff would give the slowest reading, but he's actually almost as quick as Gavrilov. The difference stems from Schiff inserting at the end of the menuet the inital theme from the Polonaise; I'm neutral about this decision, feeling that it does no harm but is also not an enhancement.

The Bourree is delightful music as exuberant as the Gavotte from this Suite. Every performance is very good except for Hewitt and Gavrilov. Hewitt sounds too fast, and her right hand projection is sometimes weak. Schiff also has weak right hand projection. There are no right hand problems for the remaining versions.

The E major Gigue completes the Suite and the entire set as well. It's good to go out with a bang, so I was looking for some "powerhouse" performances, and that's a perfectly valid way to play this piece. As one might guess, only the harpsichord versions deliver. The piano versions are intermittently powerful and exciting.

Overall, I'm not quite as enamored with the E major Suite as with the previous five. It was written well after the first five suites, and perhaps Bach was not having his best days at that time. At any rate, the harpsichord versions do best in this suite, and only Gavrilov has little to offer.

Concerning the whole set, each harpsichord version is better than the piano sets. This phenomenon really takes flight in the major key suites. It might have something to do with the piano possessing a more mellow tone than the harpsichord, and that the mellow quality does not mix very well with music in a major key. That's just speculation. Another view is that the three pianists simply did not provide their best work in the major key suites. Regardless, I would recommend Hogwood, Moroney, and Jarrett over the others. Actually, I have Moroney rated a little higher than Jarrett or Hogwood. So I went from not intially liking Moroney to considering him the best of the seven. Without this intensive listening, I likely would still not think well of Moroney's performances. Which harpsichord version should you buy? If even flow and seamless approaches are your preference, Jarrett is the one. If you want strong angularity and incisiveness, you can't go wrong with Moroney. Hogwood stands tall in the middle.

The piano versions are problematic. I have Hewitt as the best of the four with Aldwell and Gavrilov close behind; Schiff is solidly on the low rung. Hewitt delivers some great interpretations, but her tendency to not let the music speak for itself, some rather extreme instances of dynamics, and much soft-toned right hand projection significantly reduces the worth of her set. Aldwell, overall, has too many sober and undistinguished readings in the set. Gavrilov, the seamless and dreamy performer, has quite a few superb movements. However, his preferred approach often gets in the way of serving the music, and his acoustic tends to exacerbate the problem. Schiff did well in the 2nd and last suite but ranked lowly in the others.

If I didn't own any sets of the French Suites and my budget was in the moderate range, I would opt for the three harpsichord sets, forget the piano sets, and hope that a great piano version would eventually be released by someone. There must be a pianist out there who can match Hogwood, Jarrett, and Moroney. In the meantime, I am disappointed witAldwell's new set. He has done much better in Bach as his WTC set reveals. The most revealing insight I received from this survey is that my opinion of Moroney has risen greatly. I'll be seeking out other recordings of his, maybe even his set of Byrd's works.

If I had been doing these surveys in any chronological order based on purchase, the Ravel and Faure string quartets would have preceded the French Suites. But, I fell to temptation when the Aldwell/Bach set arrived at my home. Although I have Pinnock's new set of Bach's Partitas for Harpsichord for review, I now feel fully sated with Bach. So it's Ravel and Faure next.


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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