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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
English Suites (BWV 806-811)
CD 1
Suite No. 1 in A (BWV 806) [27:56]
Suite No. 2 in a minor (BWV 807) [21:43]
Suite No. 3 in g minor (BWV 808) [20:11]
CD 2
Suite No. 4 in F (BWV 809) [21:25]
Suite No. 5 in e minor (BWV 810) [20:57]
Suite No. 6 in d minor (BWV 811) [28:10]
Carole Cerasi (harpsichord, Blanchet-Taskin, 1757-1778)
rec. February, April 2005, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres, France. DDD
METRONOME METCD1078 [70:15 + 70:40] 
Experience Classicsonline

Comparison: Bob van Asperen (Brilliant Classics) 

The 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.

The 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


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