Classical Editor: Rob Barnett
Founder: Len Mullenger

september 2012

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suite no. 1 in D minor, BWV 812 [21:07]
French Suite no. 2 in C minor, BWV 813 [15:03]
French Suite no. 3 in B minor, BWV 814 [16:52]
French Suite no. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815 [17:14]
French Suite no. 5 in G major, BWV 816 [17:53]
French Suite no. 6 in E major, BWV 817 [17:42]
Toccata in E minor, BWV 914 [7:33]
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 [20:02]
Andrea Bacchetti (piano)
rec. March 2011, Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile
SONY CLASSICAL 88691965102 [70:26 + 63:10]
Andrea Bacchetti's Decca recording of Bach's English Suites has been around for a few years now (see review), and is still one of my preferred piano versions of these works. Now it is joined by another two disc Bach set, this time on the Sony label, and of the French Suites along with a few extras to make for decently respectable playing duration.

Bacchetti's location for his solo recordings is more often than not the Fazioli Concert Hall in Secile, and with another Bach expert who favours Fazioli instruments in Angela Hewitt it was inevitable that I would reach for her big box of Bach by way of comparison. Hewitt's non-pedal clarity allied to a remarkable sense of line and sensitivity of touch is always a draw, and with the French Suites there is also a timing and restraint in her ornamentation which raises each of the movements into fragrant slices of poetic communication.

This is a hard act to follow, and there are of course other names which have to be mentioned. Glenn Gould is exciting and marvellous in my opinion, but also such a unique case that he has to exist almost in his own bubble of Glenn Gould-ness - influential perhaps, but also inimitable. András Schiff on Decca is also a leading contender, though I've become less enamoured of the rubato undulations in his playing over the years, and while his playing is very fine I don't hear the same sense of communication as from Hewitt. Gorgeous recordings from other such as Andrei Gavrilov on Deutsche Grammophon take up the slack for listeners who prefer a lusher piano sound with some subtle use of the sustaining pedal, and nothing wrong with that, at least not in this case. There is the other category of player which seems determined to torture the rhythm of the music as much as possible and in every bar, and alas, Wolfgang Rübsam on Naxos is well-nigh unlistenable for this reason.

So, where does Andrea Bacchetti sit amidst this pantheon of the great and the ghastly? His opening Allemande from the Suite No. 1 declares a lyrical approach, far removed from Gould, and richer in texture than Hewitt or Schiff. This warmth of expression is allied with superb evenness of touch and rhythmic pace - by no means machine-like, but always stable. Bacchetti can take elements from Gould's playing, and you can hear some sharper articulation in the second movement Courante which invites comparison. Bacchetti is almost exactly twice as slow as Gould in this movement however, something which allows him to play with dotted rhythms and a greater sense of variation in this and many of Bach's other miniature worlds. You don't have the feeling of the music dragging, as Bacchetti keeps up the rhythmic energy and an uplifting sense of the music always being expressed and enhanced rather than rendered and overcooked. His ornamentation is effective and elegantly restrained, by no means interfering with Bach's melodic shapes or counterpoint.

The crucial Sarabande movements are the emotional heart of each Suite, and Bacchetti moves the listener by allowing the music to speak for itself, but also allowing his instrument to sing in its most natural way. More often than not he somehow manages to make the subsequent Menuet movements sound almost equally beautiful, extending the atmosphere of the slow movement, and somehow allowing its resonances to permeate and linger beyond its actual duration, like the memory of a smile. The Gigue movements have their dance quality, though Bacchetti rarely lets his hair down. There is contrast enough though, with a lively Courante in the Suite No. 3 and other more forcefully delivered movements. This is music which allows all facets of the pianists' art to shine, and Bacchetti is very much on top of his game in this recording.

CD 2 brings further riches, and though the tempo of the Gavotte in the Suite No. 5 might initially appear to be a little under the expected tempo the performance fits right in with the sense of air and openness Bacchetti gives to these pieces. The final famous Gigue has wonderful energy. The French Suite No. 6 comes from a different session to the others, with a little shift to the left in terms of stereo balance. It is in fact the same recording as that to be found on Bacchetti's recording of the Two-Part Inventions & Sinfonias on the Dynamic label (see review). This mild shift is nothing to concern even dedicated headphone listeners like myself, and the performance is another generous gift for serious Bach fans.

Listed as 'Bonus Tracks', the extra music further revisits the Partita No. 2 BWV 826, which we've also already heard on that aforementioned Dynamic disc but is in this case a different recording, with a slightly slower Allemande. This Sony recording marginally closer and perhaps the more lively and interesting sounding of the two, but with a near enough identical timings between the two versions there isn't a great deal to choose between them. My comments on the Courante in the Partita are less applicable in this more recent recording, for while the ornamentation is still pretty intense and the tempo is similar there is a greater sense of control. The Toccata BWV 914 is delicious, and a substantial extra morsel to add to the mixture. The alternative for this is on Bacchetti's release of the complete Toccatas ( see review) where the works are presented with separate tracks for each section rather than the single track we have here. Again there is little to choose between the versions, the later recording a touch more compact, and with a significantly swifter final Fuga a 3 accounting for a reduction of about 1 minute in terms of overall timing.

Andrea Bacchetti's Bach recordings are almost invariably something rather special, and this set of The French Suites is a recording to keep alongside the best. With decent notes on the music and the artist to go along with piano sound of vibrant and colourful high quality, this is the kind of refreshingly honest Bach which can refresh the soul and enhance your day no end.

Dominy Clements