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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

English Suite No 1 in A major BWV 806 [29:11]
English Suite No 2 in A minor BWV 807 [22:11]
English Suite No 3 in G minor BWV 808 [19:31]

CD 2
English Suite No 4 in F major BWV 809 [20:22]
English Suite No 5 in E minor BWV 810 [22:53]
English Suite No 6 in D minor BWV 811 [28:25]
Andrea Bacchetti (piano)
rec. Fazioli Concert Hall of Sacile (Italy),
8-9 September 2005

DECCA 476 3127
[ 71:17 + 71:56 ]
Approaching a recording which one finds immediately appealing might seem like an open goal to non review-writing folks, but I more frequently have difficulty putting my finger on the intangibles of a positive listening experience than finding a way of expressing balanced criticism with problematic releases. Before listening I was a bit concerned about the recording location. The Fazioli Concert Hall is by all accounts a good space for recording piano music, but some of the results I have heard display some kind of mild mid-range 'mound' which can make the piano sound a little cloudy. This is not a huge problem, and on second thoughts it may even be partly due to the instrument used. In any case, I was delighted to hear how the Decca engineers have somehow managed to even out any problems and bring the acoustic a little more to life with these English Suites. This is just enough to allow Andrea Bacchetti's favoured Fazioli piano sound breathe a little more, and I don't care how they did it, it sounds very fine indeed.

The booklet notes have an informative but not overly substantial essay on the music by Riccardo Risaliti, but there is no further information on Bacchetti's own ideas on the English Suites. Having another look at his Goldberg Variations DVD/CD release, and reading of references to numerous illustrious examples including Glenn Gould and Murray Perahia show that Bacchetti is honest about his influences, and indicates an awareness of how his own interpretations are positioned among those of his peers. I make an assumption in concluding that his English Suites were also prepared with a certain amount of reference to greats of the past and present, but as with the Goldberg Variations, Andrea Bacchetti's playing is individual without being wilfully eccentric, stylish without presenting virtuosity over content and communication, and contemporary without contempt for established and accepted performance practice.

I wouldn't say Bacchetti treads middle ground on his own terms, but if the comparison to exiting recordings is to be extended then there is an argument to be had in seeing his English Suites as inhabiting that fragile territory between Glenn Gould's characteristic spiky attentiveness, and Murray Perahia's humane refinement. Bacchetti is on the whole more forceful than Perahia. Take Courante I of the English Suite No.1 as a prime example. Perahia is playful with those little upward passing-note ornaments, employing a swifter tempo and flowing with more romantic dips of dynamic. Bacchetti on the other hand is more brittle, almost harpsichord-like in taking the dynamic more in levels like a shift between separate manuals. The 'English' misnomer shouldn't distract from the fact that these pieces are suites after the French model, and Bacchetti's colourful approach to ornament here and elsewhere takes this stylistic model into consideration. More strident he may be in the first Courante, but lightness of touch and melodic sensitivity gives his Courante II plenty of contrast. Both players linger lovingly over the Sarabande in this suite. Bacchetti is stricter in maintaining an inner tempo, seeing the music more in its slow dance origins than as the rather freer and almost fantasia-like reading from Perahia.

Another Sarabande which is a favourite for maximum expressive extraction is that of the English Suite No.2, and no doubt one of the reasons for its relative familiarity on disc. An extreme example of this is Ivo Pogorelich on his 1986 DG recording, where almost 3 seconds elapse between his first note and the second. Martha Argerich on her 1980 DG recital doesn't go in for such torture, but is stately and reserved, coolly showing how less can be more. Bacchetti spreads his chords, again more of a harpsichord technique than one commonly found with piano. This works well however, and his intensity comes with the bigger picture, developing a magnificent atmosphere in the central development section and modulation.

So much for comparisons: I don't intend taking everyone on a blow-by-blow comparative account of every piece here. I have had the privilege of reviewing Andrea Bacchetti's more recent Bach Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias recording (see review), and my impressions of that in comparison with another recent CD of the same music, that of Till Fellner on ECM (see review), are comparable with my overall reaction to these English Suites with those of Murray Perahia.
Andrea Bacchetti's English Suites are masculine and forthright, demanding of one's attention as well as being filled with sensitive subtleties. As a result this is a 'wide awake' recording, and possibly not one I would choose for late night listening, as background to a glass of wine and a good book. Take the Prelude from the English Suite No.3.
Perahia excites with forward momentum , but also with plenty of energetic rhythm and the right kind of subtle contrast in the gentler contrapuntal sections. By comparison, Bacchetti's entrance is rather imperious - a real curtain raiser. It might even be considered a little heavy-handed if, once the material thins, the touch didn't lighten proportionately. I'm not always convinced by the 'orchestral' metaphor with certain approaches to piano playing, but with this as one of the principal themes of the booklet notes I am prepared to believe Bacchetti may have had "the scoring, technique, structural topology and even sonority of the orchestral music of [Bach's] time" in mind with this movement. Quite how this would equate with the harpsichord is not dealt with in the notes, but Bacchetti's Prelude is little short of symphonic. His melodic fluidity in the following Allemande is as a result, once again, provided with maximum contrast, so there are gains to be had even if you are not so keen on that previous muscularity.

I'm not saying Perahia is particularly feminine in his playing in these pieces, but the effect with Bacchetti is often to remove another onion-skin layer of sentimentality from the surrounding dances, leaving the Sarabande as the soft and appealing centre to each Suite. This is of course an appalling generalisation, and there is of course a great deal of tenderness in the Allemandes and within other movements, and in any case he is not the only one with this approach: Maria Joao Pires is pretty butch in parts of the English Suite No.3 on her 2002 DG Bach recital. Bacchetti's Sarabande movements are, in each and every one of these English Suites, statements of poetic beauty, at once communicative and uncomplicated, but at the same time filled with Bach's intangible depths; those unnamed things which keep bringing us back. What Bacchetti's forthright manner in some of these pieces does give us is both an 'ancient' and a 'modern' Bach. For the former, have a look at the Courante of the English Suite No.4, which has plenty of that French almost over-ornamental feel and could as easily be something by Rameau. For the latter just listen to the final Gigue of the English Suite No. 5. Here, this fugue becomes something where as many dramatic complexities, harmonic twists and dissonant chromatic moments as possible are brought forth with a power which would sit comfortably among Shostakovich's 24.

Lack of sentimentality should not be confused with an inability to communicate emotion, and there are plenty of 'wow' moments where you can let your eyes mist over. The opening of the Allemande in the English Suite No.6 is one such, where Bach's favourite D minor is allowed to convey some searching sensations. Having this tenderised us, we are shaken from our reverie with some tactile two-part writing, stamped again with an authoritative touch by Bacchetti. I love his warm sensitivity in the Double of this Suite, the two contrasting Gavottes are a delight, and once again the Gigue is a magnificent tour-de-force.

Complete sets of J.S. Bach's English Suites on the piano are not exactly thick on the ground. For sheer quixotic excitement the 1970s recordings by Glenn Gould still hold a very high position. With numerous films of him making his recordings, we have a rare opportunity to see 'behind' the notes far more than with almost any other pianist. He is however very much a law unto himself, and for those who can't bear Gould we've had a very fine Hyperion set from Angela Hewitt as an alternative since 2003. There is also a recording by Antonio Piricone originally on ClassicO now apparently available on Scandinavian Classics, and of course Andras Schiff on Decca.
My own recent reference has as previously mentioned been that of Murray Perahia on Sony. Where does Andrea Bacchetti stand among these? Of this I can only give my personal opinion. Tastes will differ, but I suspect that if you like Glenn Gould's English Suites you will appreciate Bacchetti's recording as one of similar stature, but without the singing, and fewer if any of the clipped mannerisms which can irritate in the long term. If you are more in the Angela Hewitt or the Murray Perahia camp, you may or indeed may not appreciate Bacchetti as a drier, more hard-hitting alternative. You may find him too much of an enthusiastic advocate of certain types of playing in Bach - the 'modern piano players' view, which fearlessly brings out the most from the modern grand but without relinquishing a sensitivity to proportion and refinement. Do not however lose sight of the breadth of contrast this offers between the extrovert and dramatic, and the delicate and introvert.

I can argue the case for Andrea Bacchetti until the cows come home, but in the end no one recording is going to satisfy everyone, and the best I can do to sell you this version is to at least inform you that it is different enough from the rest to have earned a rightful place in any Bach collector's piano section. I've been playing this on and off for some weeks now, going away and coming back, carrying it with me in my head and refreshing the memories with a thorough airing through state-of-the-art headphones, and relishing every session.

Dominy Clements