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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): English Suites (BWV 806 - 811)

Carole Cerasi, harpsichord

rec: February 8 - 10 & April 19 - 21, 2005, Chartres, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Metronome - MET CD 1078 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (2.20'55")

Suite No 1 in A (BWV 806); Suite No 2 in a minor (BWV 807); Suite No 3 in g minor (BWV 808); Suite No 4 in F (BWV 809); Suite No 5 in e minor (BWV 810); Suite No 6 in d minor (BWV 811)

The keyboard suite in Germany goes back to the middle of the 17th century. Although before dance pieces were written by German composers, only around the middle of the century some of these were put together into a suite. The first keyboard suite which can be dated with any security was composed by Johann Jakob Froberger and published in his second book of keyboard music in 1649. He was also the first German composer who had been both in Italy - as a pupil of Frescobaldi - and in France. His suites can be seen as examples of the goût réuni, a mixture of Italian and French elements.
The last decades of the 17th century showed an increasing interest in French music in Germany. Some composers went to France to study French music, like Georg Muffat. At the same time French keyboard music was published in Germany. In his early years Johann Sebastian Bach avidly collected French keyboard music by masters like Nivers, Lebègue, d'Anglebert and Marchand. Here he found the dances which were a fixed part of the keyboard suite: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. They are also the backbone of the so-called English Suites.

These are the first set of six suites for harpsichord which Johann Sebastian Bach composed. The other two are the French Suites (BWV 812 - 817) and the Partitas (BWV 825 - 830). The latter set was the only one which was published (as Clavier-Übung I). It is not quite certain when the English Suites were composed, but it seems very likely Bach started the set while working at Weimar. It is here that he got acquainted with the Italian concerto style, and in particular the concertos of Vivaldi. This explains the overtures which open every suite, and which are modelled after the Italian (violin) concerto.
The preludes are not the only extension of the standard pattern of the suite. Before the gigue, which closes every suite, another dance is included: a bourrée (Suites 1 and 2), a gavotte (Suites 3 and 6), a menuet (Suite 4) and a passepied (Suite 5), all consisting of two contrasting sections (bourrée I & II, passepied I & II, etc). In Germany these additional dances were called Galanterien.

Where the name English Suites comes from has been the subject of much speculation, but so far nobody has come up with a really convincing explanation. One thing is for sure, the name was not given by Bach himself. Also clear is that the character of the English Suites has nothing to do with any influence of the English keyboard style, like that of Purcell. These suites are basically French in character, but the addition of the preludes in Italian style as well as contrapuntal elements which reflect the German tradition - in particular in the gigues of the last four suites - makes them examples of the then predominant 'mixed taste'.

Carole Cerasi plays a beautiful French harpsichord (Blanchet-Taskin, 1757-1778) which is part of the collection of Kenneth Gilbert, one of the pioneers of the performance on historical keyboard instruments. Ms Cerasi uses the two manuals well to realise the contrasts, especially in the opening preludes, where some passages seem to imitate the solo violin in Italian violin concertos. Here and in the sarabandes I appreciated Ms Cerasi's performances most. It is in the fast dance movements where I have some problems with her playing. Her often relentless hammering of the keyboard and the flood of fast notes she produces can become a little tiresome after a while. I really longed for some relaxation, more variety in articulation and more breathing spaces. What I find particularly disappointing is that often the rhythmic pulse is severely underexposed. Take, for instance, the menuet of the Suite No 4 in F: one never feels that this is a menuet. Bob van Asperen, in his recording of these suites (Brilliant Classics) which I used as comparison, makes much more of it. It hasn't so much to do with tempo, as one would perhaps think: Van Asperen regularly plays at a higher speed than Carole Cerasi. A good example are the gavottes I & II of Suite No 3 in g minor. Van Asperen chooses a faster tempo, but still the dance rhythm is much more pronounced and the drone in the bass much stronger profiled than in Carole Cerasi's performance. It has first and foremost to do with the stronger differentiation between the notes in Van Asperen's performance, which shows his thorough awareness of the baroque principle of music as a form of speech.

Please don't get me wrong: Carole Cerasi's recording offers much to enjoy, and she is a very accomplished harpsichordist. Like I said the slow movements fare rather well, and I enjoyed her ornamentation (Suite No 2 in a minor, sarabande!), where she has found the middle ground between doing too little and doing too much. But I think it is important that the listener can feel the dance rhythms, and that is where Bob van Asperen is unsurpassed. And the emotional depth of the gigues, which often contain daring harmonies, is more strongly brought to the fore in his performance than in Ms Cerasi's.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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Carole Cerasi

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