Angela Hewitt, who is recording all of Bach's keyboard works on piano, has proven to be one of the most inspired interpreters of his music. This set features the French Suites, some of Bach's most popular works for keyboard, as well as a number of "extra" pieces; more than just filler, they provide two chock-full CDs of excellent music.
Hewitt has shown, in all of her Bach recordings, that she has a rare capacity to get to the heart of the music. She plays Bach intuitively, yet in her own inimitable style, and, while not everyone may appreciate her approach, she is always interesting and puts a great deal of feeling into her recordings.
More than many of her recordings of Bach, this set sounds to me like a journey. While some of her recordings are performances, this is a recreation. As she says of the little preludes in her liner notes, "they recall fond childhood memories, and are as fascinating now as they were then." It seems that she is playing these pieces - not just the preludes, but everything on this set - for the pleasure they give her, and the desire to share that pleasure.
With the exception of the opening and closing works - two virtuoso pieces - all the music on this recording has a pedagogical nature. The three sets of little preludes are all simple works (although can any work by Bach be called simple?), written to teach. The first six preludes come from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's Little Piano book; the rest from other sources. They all show how Bach was able to write very expressive music in short, straightforward pieces designed for his children and students to develop rudimentary skills on the keyboard.
The French Suites themselves are in two groups of three: the first three in minor keys, with a quirky sound, and the second three in major keys, with a more joyous, radiant sound. Angela Hewitt approaches all of these works in a very free manner - she ornaments a great deal, far more than what many performers would do. Yet, she somehow manages to make these ornaments sound natural, and never excessive. She is more retained in the slower, more emotional sarabandes, such as that of the second suite, with its haunting, melancholy melody. But she is exuberant in the faster movements, such as gavotte of the fourth suite, where her light touch and flowing ornaments carry the music on like a bubbling stream.
This recording resembles such a stream, as Angela Hewitt takes the listener through a variety of emotions and feelings, from the virtuoso Sonata in D minor, transcribed by Bach from his Suite for solo violin BWV 1003, with its energetic melodies, and, especially, the magnificent fugue in its second movement. It goes on through the first three French suites, the minor suites, and their haunting, bittersweet melodies. Then on to the 18 Little Preludes, these gems of pedagogy that no keyboard player who has learned them can ever forget. On to the major key French suites, where the tone is regal and uplifting, then, finally, the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, whose prelude is full of energy, and whose fugue matches the rhythm, yet takes the listener away into the flights of fancy that only Bach could compose.
Far more than simply a recording of the French Suites, this set contains an interesting combination of works that will certainly not disappoint. Another fine recording from Angela Hewitt, and one that will please fans of her recordings of Bach. For those who have not yet heard her play Bach, this could be a fine introduction to her work.