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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Keyboard Works

[I] French Suites (BWV 812-817)
Alessandra Artifoni, harpsichord
rec: July 2012, Florence, Villa L'Oriuolo
Dynamic - CDS 757/1-2 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (1.30'44")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

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)

[II] "Italian Concert, French Suites I-III"
Lorenzo Ghielmi, harpsichord
rec: Oct 28 & Nov 10, 2011, Crema, Sala musicale Giardino
Passacaille - 984 (© 2012) (71'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I
Cover & track-list

Aria variata alla maniera italiana in a minor (BWV 989); Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971); French Suite No. 1 in d minor (BWV 812); French Suite No. 2 in c minor (BWV 813); French Suite No. 3 in b minor (BWV 814)

[III] "'Italian Concerto', 'French' Overture and Other Works for Harpsichord"
Steven Devine, harpsichord
rec: Sept 23 - 25, 2013, Dunwich (Suffolk), Potton Hall
Chandos - CHAN 0802 (© 2014) (71'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F

Aria variata alla maniera italiana in a minor (BWV 989); Chromatic fantasia and fugue in d minor (BWV 903); Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971); Fantasia in C minor (BWV 906); Ouvertüre nach französischer Art in b minor (BWV 831)

[IV] Clavier-Übung II
Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
rec: May 2010, Paris, Hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours (chapel)
Alpha - 180 (© 2011) (49'03")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto nach italienischem Gusto in F (BWV 971); Fantasia in C minor (BWV 906); Ouvertüre nach französischer Art in b minor (BWV 831)


Discs with keyboard music by Johann Sebastian Bach are released with great regularity, and many of them include the same repertoire. It is impossible to review each and everyone of them in detail, but because of the unremitting interest in Bach's oeuvre it is impossible to ignore them. In this review I pay attention to some recent recordings.

The suite, a form of French origin, was introduced in Germany around the middle of the 17th century. It was Johann Jacob Froberger who laid down the pattern which was to become the standard, with a sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In this respect it was clearly different from the French suite which was a rather loose collection of dances in the same key from which performers could make a selection.

Bach composed a large number of suites, sometimes called partita. In them the basic elements mentioned above are represented, but he mostly treated the form with considerable freedom. Some suites open with a prélude or an ouverture which bears witness to his acquaintance with the French idiom of his time. He sometimes omitted one of the four standard movements or included other dance types, such as gavotte, bourrée and menuet. On the title-page of his Clavier-Übung I Bach uses the word Galanterien to describe these dances, and this suggests a reference to the galant idiom. However, it seems that this was a more general term for dances of various types.

Even so, it cannot be denied that the some of Bach's suites show his interest in the galant idiom, and that goes especially for the six French Suites. There is far less use of counterpoint here than in other keyboard music. The closing gigues of the first three suites are the main exceptions as they are all fugues. Bach started to compose these suites in the early 1720s: the first versions of some of them were included in the Clavierbüchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach. Copies have survived in the hands of some of his pupils and this - in combination with the rather light style - has led to the assumption that they were meant as educational material. The name French Suites is not from Bach's pen but was conferred by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg in 1762. This could lead to the misunderstanding that they are specific specimens of the influence of the French style in Bach's music. However, it has been argued that the English Suites are closer to the French style than the French Suites. These also include elements of the Italian style.

There is certainly no lack of recordings. Some performers need only one disc, but that is only possible by omitting some of the repeats. Alessandra Artifoni plays all of them, apparently with the exception of the menuet of Suite No. 2 in c minor. Her tempi are on the fast side. That itself is not a problem, but in this case it results in less than satisfactory articulation. I find her playing rather straightforward, with little breathing spaces, for instance between phrases, but also within phrases. This also means that there are few 'dynamic' accents and too little differentation between the notes. The rhythmic pulse which is so important in dances doesn't come off all that well.

Ms Artifoni plays a beautiful instrument, a copy after Michael Mietke from 1702/04. That seems a most appropriate choice, more so than a French-type instrument. Lorenzo Ghielmi also plays a German harpsichord, a copy of an instrument by an anonymous maker of the 18th century. He only recorded the first three suites. I hope he will record the remaining three as well, because his performance is more satisfactory than Ms Artifoni's. He delivers a differentiated interpretation, with rather moderate tempi, a clear articulation and emphasis on the good notes. In these performances the rhythmic pulse comes off much better than in Ms Artifoni's recording.

Ghielmi adds the Italian Concerto and the Aria variata alla maniera italiana. The latter is one of the lesser-known pieces by Bach. It is an early work, dating from his formative years when he regularly used the form of the variation and was becoming acquainted with the Italian style. The Concerto nach italienischem Gusto, better known as Italian Concerto, is from a much later date, but bears witness once again to Bach's interest in the Italian concerto form, which he had got to know during his time in Weimar when he made also transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi and other Italian masters. The Italian Concerto could be considered a kind of 'transcription' as well: an attempt to translate the concerto form to the keyboard. It could be played by an instrumental ensemble; Andrew Parrott once recorded it that way. Ghielmi gives a good performance, but a little too straightforward. A bit more freedom and the use of rubato would have resulted in a more engrossing performance. In the Aria variata Ghielmi unfortunately doesn't observe all the repeats.

In contrast Steven Devine plays all of them, but that is not a reason to celebrate, as his performance is rather dull, also because of the generally slowish tempi. He too included the Italian Concerto, and this doesn't come off any better. His performance is undifferentiated and he doesn't manage to bring out its theatrical character. The Italian Concerto is part of Bach's Clavier-Übung II in which he demonstrated not only his command of the Italian style but also his interest in the French taste. The second piece in this collection is the Ouvertüre nach französischer Art, mostly called French Overture. It is an example of a suite which is a mixture of the traditional form and additions as had become common in the early 18th century. It begins with an overture, the allemande is omitted, whereas Bach included pairs of gavottes, passepieds and bourrées. The work is concluded by an 'Echo'. The overture is relatively well done, but the dances are disappointing as the rhythmic pulse is seriously underexposed. The Echo is horrible and lacks any verve. Devine adds the Chromatic fantasy and fugue; the fantasy's improvisatory character comes to little here. The Fantasia in c minor (BWV 906) is equally disappointing. Devine plays a copy of a harpsichord by Johann Christoph Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710).

How much better are the interpretations of the French Overture and the Italian Concerto by Benjamin Alard! The latter receives a performance which is characterised by a strong amount of tension. That is not the result of extremely fast tempi in the first and third movement, but by an effective but not demonstrative realisation of the contrasts between and within the various movements. The first movement - which comes without a tempo indication - is played at rather moderate speed, whereas the concluding presto is performed with much panache. The andante is given a highly expressive performance. Alard's performance of the French Overture is excellent. He plays the dacapos in the opening ouverture twice: ABABA. His colleague Jean-Luc Ho does the same, but this practice is still rather rare in keyboard music, whereas it is quite common in orchestral overtures. The dance movements are impressive in the exposure of the rhytmic pulse. The closing Echo is outright exciting, also thanks to a subtle use of rubato. This recording of Clavier-Übung II is one of the best I know.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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Steven Devine

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