& Arts, Gilbert/Harmonia Mundi, Hogwood/Decca, Jarrett/ECM,
Moroney/Virgin Classics, Rannou/Zig Zag, Suzuki/BIS
addressing the highly esteemed Bob van Asperen's new recording
of Bach's French Suites, I would like to give a short overview
of the alternative recordings listed in the heading with emphasis
on their particular strengths and weaknesses. This should be
helpful in explaining where van Asperen's performances reside
in the mix.
a wide diversity of interpretation. Kenneth Gilbert has been
a leading early music keyboard specialist for decades. His 1975
recording of the French Suites represents "Basic Bach"
in the best sense: no frills or intervention, just a respectful
adherence to the music in order to convey the emotional content.
With unerring accuracy, Gilbert strikes to the essence of each
movement. Given exceptional sonics for the time, this is a version
that most folks should find highly satisfying. Essentially,
Gilbert is a most reliable guide into Bach's sound-world.
Hogwood is another reliable guide in his Decca recording made
in 1984. His phrasing does have some rigidity to it and he doesn't
dig as deeply into the Sarabandes as Gilbert, but he certainly
offers a very attractive ceremonial accent, imparts great energy
and gusto to the fast movements, and his harpsichords have gorgeous
sound backed-up with outstanding sonics: lower voices ring out
strongly and with superior definition.
Gilbert nor Hogwood are particularly keen on supple phrasing,
but Masaaki Suzuki more than makes up for it in his recent recording
on BIS. This is "Elegant Bach" with much legato and
priority on beautiful phrasing. However, Suzuki rises to the
occasion when thrust and tension are required as in the Gigue
from the Suite in G major where he gives a blistering account
replete with macabre activity in the second section. On the
debit side, the Sarabandes and Allemandes tend to be emotionally
light and some of Suzuki's ornamentation is rather fussy and
calls attention to itself instead of contributing to the music's
structure and themes.
young harpsichordist Blandine Rannou easily holds up to the
high standards of the other comparators and often surpasses
them. Her interpretation has no peers in the areas of rhythmic
flow, beauty of phrasing, and the capturing of the bustling
activity of the Gigue movements; most significant, I know of
no other recording of the French Suites that is as life-affirming
as Rannou's. If the performances have any flaws, they come from
a lack of introspection and exploration of Bach's musical arguments.
famous jazz musician Keith Jarrett has made a few Bach recordings
for ECM, and his set of the French Suites is one of his better
efforts. The performances are silky-smooth with more legato
than in any other alternative harpsichord set. With seamless
phrasing, Jarrett brings out much of the music's beauty, but
there is a surface quality to the interpretations, a limited
sense of diversity in tempo and dynamics, and the Courantes
tend to be sluggish and much slower than the norm. Ultimately,
Jarrett's version does not have the architectural or emotional
breadth to be considered among the best, resulting in music-making
that is quite pleasurable but not very interesting.
Moroney, another highly regarded early music keyboard specialist,
gives us "Sharp-Tongued Bach" in his Virgin Classics
set. Contours and phrasing are often razor-sharp, a strong departure
from most other recorded sets of the French Suites. Although
lyricism is not lacking, it is the spiky and austere nature
of his interpretations that stands out. Further, the sound-stage
is sharp and penetrating, resulting in performances that might
be too severe for those who prefer Bach on the piano. Anyone
who feels that the French Suites represent mellow Bach needs
to hear the Moroney set to get an opposite take on these works.
comparison set from David Cates is the pick of the litter. No
other version offers such exquisite conversational properties
among the myriad voices; this is true dialogue delivered with
pin-point detail. Also, Cates delivers the utmost in poignancy
of the Allemandes and Sarabandes while playing the faster movements
with great buoyancy and drive. To the extent that the French
Suites lend themselves to a story-telling experience, Cates
maximizes the impact.
van Asperen, noted for his idiomatic and scholarly performances
of early music keyboard works, displays his customary excellence
in the French Suites: clarity of musical lines, sharply-etched
phrasing, exceptional dialogue among voices and incisive emotional
content. In relationship to the comparison versions, van Asperen's
interpretations are closest to Moroney and Cates. His contours
aren't as sharp as Moroney's, but the dialogue is more meaningful
and just a little less compelling than in the Cates performances.
Cates also has the advantage over van Asperen in the expressive
content of the Allemandes and Sarabandes, significantly enhanced
by a staggering technique where one of the musical lines is
played slightly behind the beat; the effect is to create a tugging
motion that increases the music's poignancy.
for the Allemandes and Sarabandes, van Asperen matches Cates
in all respects. In the Courantes and Gigues, van Asperen displays
great propulsion and biting rhythmic patterns. His Menuets possess
a high degree of ceremony, and the two Bourrée movements are
thrilling with virtuoso speed. Only the Air from Suite No. 4
disappoints with a slow pacing that takes some "wind out
of the sails".
case you are wondering how van Asperen fits all six Suites on
one disc, I can assure you that it has nothing to do with fast
tempos; his Asperen's tempos are generally well within the mainstream.
But in the matter of repeats, our keyboardist omits many of
them, especially those of relatively long duration.
van Asperen plays the Christian Vater harpsichord housed in
the German National Museum at Nuremberg. Built in 1738, the
Vater has a lovely tone with plenty of crispness, although it's
a bit underwhelming in the lowest registers. The standard CD
sonics are excellent, and the multi-channel SACD layer reveals
enhanced clarity and depth. However, there is a relatively high
degree of reverberation that keeps the sound from being ideal.
summary, the new van Asperen recording of Bach's French Suites
is of high quality and fully equal to the best alternative versions
excepting the set from David Cates. Although Aeolus recordings
are premium-priced, having all six Suites on one disc offers
additional incentive to acquire one of the finest Bach keyboard
CDs on the market. Further, it is the only French Suites set
in SACD format. I strongly recommend that Bach keyboard music
enthusiasts acquire the recording. Just keep in mind that the
Cates set is the essential one for the music library.