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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "French Suites, Italian Concerto, Fantasia and Fugue"

Francesco Cera, harpsichord

rec: June 8 - 10, 2008, Rome, Fiano romano
Arts - 47738-8 (2 CDs) ( 2008) (2.12'50")

Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904); Italian Concerto in F (BWV 971); Suite No 1 in d minor (BWV 812); Suite No 2 in c minor (BWV 813); Suite No 3 in b minor (BWV 814); Suite No 4 in E flat (BWV 815); Suite No 5 in G (BWV 816); Suite No 6 in E (BWV 817)

In the booklet Francesco Cera lays down his views on the French Suites. He considers them a cycle, the first three of which are in minor keys, the other three in major keys. On the basis of the writings of Athanasius Kircher, Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Johann Mattheson he interprets the 'journey through the keys' as a reflection of human life. The keys can be interpreted as serious and meditative (Suite No 1), dark and sad (Suite No 2), lonely and melancholic (Suite No 3), emotional and affectionate (Suite No 4), playful and caressing (Suite No 5) and otherworldly (Suite No 6). He goes a step further by interpreting the suites in a spiritual way. "The human being which is tormented by sin and the hardships of life (1st suite) is forced to take a hard way through life (2nd suite). Only prayer and the teachings of Jesus Christ can lead him to salvation of the soul (3rd suite). The fruit of faith is the consoling experience of God's grace (4th suite), which only makes the joy of human love possible (5th suite) and after death awards us with the pleasures of paradise by Jesus Christ's side (6th suite)."

He adds: "Of course today listeners are free to imagine different things". It seems to me that his 'spiritual' interpretation has influenced his performances. It is notable that the tempi in the Suites 1 to 3 are considerably slower than those in the Suites 4 to 6, and that is in particular the case in the allemandes which open every suite. Just compare the allemande of the Suite No 1 with that of the Suite No 6. I consider the choice of tempi one of the most problematic of this set. A number of slow movements are played too slow, and as a result they tend to fall apart. That is even more the case because the microphones are very close to the instrument leading to a highly detailed registration of the sounds the instrument produces.

And that sound is often aggressive, which reflects the character of the instrument. This was made by Roberto Livi after a French instrument by Vincent Tibaut in 1691. This is not the most obvious choice, and the sharp and obtrusive sound is not always pleasant for the ear, in particular if one listens to this disc through headphones.

One of the merits of Cera's performance is the use of rubato, but that should never disturb the rhythmic pulse. And that is exactly what happens here. In a number of movements, particularly in the first three suites, the rhythm of the dances is hardly discernible. This is also due to the fact that Cera pays too little attention to the hierarchy of the notes through a differentiation between good and bad notes. There are also some strange accelerations, in particular the second menuets of Suites No 1 and No 2.

Some movements have come off better than others. The beautiful flow of the allemande of Suite No 4 isn't captured very well, and the gigue of the same suite is too ponderous. This is enhanced by the coupling of the manuals. Like I said the tempi in the last three suites are generally faster and are more satisfying. The dance rhythms also come off better, like in the gavotte from Suite No 4, and the gavotte and the gigue of Suite No 5. The allemande of Suite No 6 is the most satisfying of the whole set.

Returning to the 'spiritual' interpretation: whatever one may think about Cera's 'imagination', if the Affekt of the suites is expressed through the keys and the musical figurations, as Cera argues, then playing them so slowly on top of it seems a bit exaggerated.

As I have questioned the choice of harpsichord, I am also puzzled about the 'registration': too often Cera alternates between one manual and the coupling of the two manuals, in the gavotte of Suite No 6 even between various phrases.

This recording is rounded up by two well-known compositions. The Italian Concerto is well played, although again I had liked a little more differentiation now and then. But here again I find the harpsichord less than ideal. The builder writes that "Tibaut's intention seemed to be to give almost each string a special personal identity, to thus reach a clear polyphonic effect". I think the Italian Concerto asks for a more dense, 'orchestral' sound. It is more suited to the Fantasia and Fugue in a minor, but here Cera is returning to his slow tempi again. Just to compare: Cera takes 11'47", whereas Andreas Staier (deutsche harmonia mundi) only needs just under 9 minutes. Staier may be fast, this difference is extreme, and the result is not satisfying as the music sometimes almost comes to a standstill.

So, to sum it up, the well-played suites and movements aside, the only real asset of this recording is the fact that Cera plays all repeats - which as such is praiseworthy. Otherwise I can't see any reasons to recommend this set.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

Francesco Cera


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