Comparison: Bob van Asperen (Brilliant Classics)
keyboard suite in Germany goes back to the middle of the 17th
century. Although German composers had written dance pieces
before then it was only around the middle of the century that
the practice of grouping these into suites began. The first
keyboard suite which can be dated with any security was composed
by Johann Jakob Froberger and was 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
'goût réuni', a mixture of Italian and French elements.
last decades of the 17th century showed an increasing interest
in French music in Germany. Some composers, like Georg Muffat,
went to France to study French music. At the same time French
keyboard music was published in Germany. In his early years
Johann Sebastian Bach avidly collected keyboard music by French
masters like Nivers, Lebègue, d'Anglebert and Marchand. Here
he encountered dances which were fixed parts of keyboard suites:
allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. They are also the
backbone of the so-called 'English Suites'.
These are the first set of six suites for harpsichord which Bach composed.
The other two are the French Suites (BWV 812 - 817) and the
Partitas (BWV 825 - 830). The latter set was the only one
which was published (as Clavier-Übung I). It is not quite
certain when the English Suites were composed, but it seems
very likely that Bach started the set while working at Weimar.
There he became acquainted with the Italian concerto style,
and in particular the concertos of Vivaldi. This explains
the overtures which open every suite, and which are modelled
after the Italian (violin) concerto.
The preludes are not the only extension of the standard pattern of the
suite. Before the gigue, which closes every suite, another
dance is included: a bourrée (Suites 1 and 2), a gavotte (Suites
3 and 6), a menuet (Suite 4) and a passepied (Suite 5), all
consisting of two contrasting sections (bourrée I & II,
passepied I & II, etc). In Germany these additional dances
were called 'Galanterien'.
Where the name 'English Suites' comes from has been the subject of much
speculation, but so far nobody has come up with a really convincing
explanation. One thing is for sure, the name was not given
by Bach himself. Also clear is that the character of the English
Suites has nothing to do with any influence of the English
keyboard style, like that of Purcell. These suites are basically
French in character, but the addition of the preludes in Italian
style as well as contrapuntal elements which reflect the German
tradition - in particular in the gigues of the last four suites
- makes them examples of the then predominant 'mixed taste'.
Carole Cerasi plays a beautiful French harpsichord which is part of the
collection of Kenneth Gilbert, one of the pioneers of performance
on historical keyboard instruments. Ms Cerasi uses the two
manuals well to realise the contrasts, especially in the opening
preludes, where some passages seem to imitate the solo violin
in Italian violin concertos. Here and in the sarabandes I
appreciated Ms Cerasi's performances most. It is in the fast
dance movements where I have some problems with her playing.
Her often relentless hammering of the keyboard and the flood
of fast notes she produces can become a little tiresome after
a while. I really longed for some relaxation, more variety
in articulation and more breathing space. What I find particularly
disappointing is that often the rhythmic pulse is severely
underexposed. Take, for instance, the menuet of the 4th Suite:
one never feels that this is a menuet. Bob van Asperen, in
his recording of the English Suites which I used as comparison,
makes much more of it. It hasn't so much to do with tempo,
as one would perhaps think: Van Asperen regularly plays at
a higher speed than Carole Cerasi. A good example are the
gavottes I and II of Suite No 3. Van Asperen chooses a faster
tempo, but still the dance rhythm is much more pronounced
and the drone in the bass has a much stronger profile than
in Cerasi's performance. This has first and foremost to do
with the stronger differentiation between the notes in Van
Asperen's performance, which shows his thorough awareness
of the baroque principle of music as a form of speech.
Please don't get me wrong: Carole Cerasi's recording offers much to enjoy,
and she is a very accomplished harpsichordist. As I have said,
the slow movements fare rather well, and I enjoyed her ornamentation
(Suite No 2, sarabande!), where she has found the middle ground
between doing too little and doing too much. That said, it is
important that the listener feels the dance rhythms, and that
is where van Asperen is unsurpassed. And the emotional depth of
the gigues, which often contain daring harmonies, is more strongly
brought to the fore in his performance than in Ms Cerasi's.
Johan van Veen