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Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 French Suites (BWV 812 - 817)

Bradley Brookshire, harpsichord

rec: January 2001, New York, Purchase College Conservatory of Music (Recital Hall)
Purchase Records - PC1575 (72'23")

Suite nr 1 in d minor (BWV 812); Suite nr 2 in c minor (BWV 813); Suite nr 3 in b minor (BWV 814); Suite nr 4 in E flat (BWV 815); Suite nr 5 in G (BWV 816); Suite nr 6 in E (BWV 817)

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 certainty 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 goûts-réünis, 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 French Suites.
In France other dance forms were included, like menuet, gavotte, chaconne and passacaille. At the time Bach worked at his English and French Suites this kind of suites was already old-fashioned. François Couperin had published two books with keyboard suites in 1714 and 1717 respectively, and in them the traditional dance forms gradually gave way to character pieces.

Bach seems to have started the composition of the French Suites in 1720. The Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1722 contains the first of the six French Suites. The last suite was probably composed in 1725. The suites have come down in several manuscripts which contain many differences in regard to articulation, ornamentation, accidentals etc. This can be explained from the fact that Bach composed these suites first and foremost as learning material for his students.
It is not known where the name French Suites comes from. The suites have been referred to under this name by the German organist and theorist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1762), but some scholars believe the name could have had its origin in the Bach circle, and be used to distinguish them from the English Suites.

The six suites are divided into two halves: the Suites 1 to 3 are in minor keys, the Suites 4 to 6 in major keys. There is an increase in the number of dances the suites contain. The first suite consists of the traditional four dances mentioned above, with a pair of menuets added. The second and third suites contain six dances, the suites 4 and 5 seven, and the collection ends with the 6th suite, consisting of 8 dances.

There are quite a number of recordings of the French Suites around. Does this new recording offer something special which justifies its release?
Even though I don’t know all recordings available I dare to say it does. This is a very imaginative, bold, even provocative interpretation. It is always interesting, never boring, never predictable. That doesn't mean I agree with every aspect of it, but this recording makes you listen again, and very carefully to music you thought you knew. That is a big compliment in itself.
Bradley Brookshire isn't afraid of adding a lot of ornamentation. It is often said that Bach has written so many ornaments himself that there is not much room for adding even more. And one shouldn't overdo it. Whether that has happened here is debatable. A good example is the sarabande of the 5th suite, which is abundantly ornamented. As a result this is one of the most dramatic movements of the whole set.
I also greatly enjoyed the ornamentation - and the differentiation in it - in the menuet II of Suite 1.

Something which is set to upset people is the use of rubato. Although it is used by other interpreters, like Gustav Leonhardt, Brookshire goes much further in its application than any other I have heard. The sarabande of the second suite is an impressive example of the dramatic effect the use of rubato has.
Brookshire is well aware of the rhetorical character of Bach's keyboard music as he shows for instance in the allemande of the third suite.

There are some minuses in this recording, though. Sometimes the tempi are very fast. I have nothing against a high speed performance as such, but I think in some cases Brookshire goes a little overboard when the tempi are so fast that the dance rhythm is hardly noticeabe anymore, like in the anglaise of Suite 3 or the courante of the sixth suite.
And I believe an air should be somewhat more cantabile than the two in this set (in the Suites 2 and 4).
Particularly confusing is the way the repeats are dealt with. I have no idea why some are played and others are left out. I can't see any consistancy here.

Another thing is the harpsichord. The booklet doesn't give any details about the instrument used, which - according my information - is deliberate. It is a nice sounding instrument, but here I would have preferred an instrument with a stronger, more robust sound.

There are a couple of technical matters to deal with.
Most of the time there is hardly any silence between the dances of a suite. That creates a continuing flow of music and underlines the coherence of the suites, but I would like to hear the sound of the instrument disappear at the end of a movement before the next one starts.
In most cases the sound has hardly disappeared even at the end of a suite when the next one begins. Again, this could be deliberate to emphasize the coherence within the set of suites, but I don't like it. And there is certainly a strong connection between the suites, but that is more important to the performer than the listener. These suites were never intended to be played at a stretch anyway. Some breathing space between the suites would have been nice.

The booklet gives something to niggle as well. It is a matter of taste, of course, but I find the layout pretty awful. What is worse: the print on the back of the tray is so small that it is very hard to read the numbers and titles of the tracks. The duration of the individual tracks isn't given, by the way.
I don't like the fact that on the cover the name of the performer is easier to read than that of the composer. It is a matter of priorities; here they seem wrong to me.
The same goes for the text in the booklet. The liner notes are written by Bradley Brookshire himself, and start with a glowing curriculum vitae, apparently written by the performer himself. I understand that musicians can't avoid a kind of self-promotion, but in my view it goes too far here. It would have given a more sympathetic impression if someone else had listed the performer’s credentials.
Brookshire only gives some information about the suites in general. I would have liked to read more about the individual suites as well.

I would strongly recommend this disc: it makes you listen to these suites as if you never heard them. And that is the best thing that can be said about a performance.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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