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English Suites 1-6
Audio CD; Import
Polygram Int'l

Two Part Invention
Audio CD; Import
Dynamic Italy
Of Bach’s three great sets of keyboard suites/partitas - the two composition classifications were synonymous during the Baroque period - the English suites are believed to be the earliest. Recent research has revised their date of writing from what was once believed to be between 1718 and 1720 to 1715. Like the French suites and the partitas, the English suites are fixed successions of stylized dance movements, with additional dance forms, like gavotte and bourèe, inserted before the concluding gigue. In the English suites and the partitas, Bach adds an introductory movement in the form of a praeludium. In the French suites, only the No.4 in E moll-Major has a praeludium; the other five begin immediately with the usual allemande.

In the French suites, Bach did draw upon certain ornamental characteristics common to the French keyboardists of the time, but of the English suites there is nothing English. In trying to explain the inaptness of the title, Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel speculated that the suites may have been composed for an English nobleman. But no such name has ever surfaced. Whatever the case may be, of the three sets of works, Bach deemed only the last written partitas worthy of being incorporated into his Clavierübung.

Italian pianist Andrea Bacchetti has been a fixture on the international piano scene since the mid 1990s. He has appeared regularly throughout the capitals of Europe, Russia, Mexico, and South America. In 31:4, I had occasion to review a DVD of Bacchetti in a live performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which I found to be “highly convincing and engaging.” His prefacing autobiographical sketch, however, was a piece of absurdist theater to which I found myself shouting at my TV screen, “shut up already and play. Bacchetti has made a special project of Bach, and his playing of the English suites on his Fazioli Model F278 reflects the deep thought he has given to these works. His approach leans towards the introverted and sensitive, but his playing is not affected, and there is plenty of forward momentum and kinetic energy where needed.

The one criticism I thought I had related to Bacchetti’s embellishments, which seemed a bit fussy and overdone. But it turned out not to be the embellishments, per se, that were bothering me. In an A/B comparison with a harpsichord version by Huguette Dreyfus in the Courante from the A-Minor Suite, I realized that most of the embellishments are Bach’'s, and that the only reason they sound somewhat excessive in Bacchetti’s recording is due to the unmodulated sound of the piano in the repeats. Dreyfus puts her two-manual harpsichord to good use by varying registrations in the repeats, something that is not possible on the piano. Of course, variations in touch and articulation are possible on the piano, but Bacchetti doesn’t seem particularly keen on the technique, so that eventually the tedium of texture takes its toll.

Since no original manuscript of the English suites exists, we can only extrapolate from the later partitas that a double-manual harpsichord would have been Bach’'s instrument of choice. If this sounds like an argument against playing these works on piano, it’s not. It is, however, an argument for using a bit more pianistic imagination in differentiating repeated sections by means of fingering and pedaling techniques. Bach is most effective on piano when the performer plays the instrument as a piano, instead of trying to make it sound like the harpsichord it’s not. Bacchetti’s English suites, I think, could have done with a bit more of a pianist’s approach.

The second entry in the above headnote is a grab bag of Bach’s kleine and nicht so kleine keyboard works. The two and three-part inventions - or sinfonias, which is now the preferred designation for the latter - are essentially exercises in two and three-part counterpoint Bach wrote as learning and practice pieces for his students. The same may be said of the little preludes from the Keyboard Book for Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and of the other assorted collections of little preludes, little fugues, and little preludes with fugues, all of which had a pedagogical purpose. Bach would probably be amused to learn that 300 years later anyone would seriously take these bicycle-training wheels to be great music. Yet such is our fascination with Bach’s art that even such exercises intended for domestic consumption take on greater significance than they probably warrant.

From the “not so little” category of works in this set, Bacchetti gives us one of the keyboard partitas, the No. 2 in C-Minor, and one of the French suites, the No. 6 in E-Major. Part of this Dynamic set was recorded in the same venue as the Decca set, the Fazioli Concert Hall in Sacile, Italy, and another part in the Sala Verdi of the Milan Conservatory. Unfortunately, the booklet doesn’t tell us which tracks were recorded where; but in the Partita and French Suite, there is a peculiar wow and flutter that causes a slight quavering effect on held notes. Since the same problem does not afflict the Decca set or the other items on the Dynamic set, I’m guessing something went awry in Milan.

Both of these releases come with recommendations that are tepid at best. All of this music has had a number of other advocates, both on piano and harpsichord. For the English suites on piano, I continue to favor Angela Hewitt, whose Bach is hard to beat, and Murray Perahia as a close runner-up. For the little preludes and other assorted keyboard miscellany, Hewitt again gets my vote, and her two-disc set on Hyperion includes the complete French suites. Harpischord fanciers, on the other hand, will not do any better than with Kenneth Gilbert on an Archiv (DG) recording that’s been around since the 1980s. All in all, Bacchetti is very good, but not great, and neither of these releases left me hungry for more.

Jerry Dubins

This article originally appeared in Issue 33:3 (Jan/Feb 2010) of Fanfare Magazine