With excellent sound and commanding playing, these
three CDs of Bach's English and French Suites are a really attractive
proposition. Alan Curtis performs the music with conviction; tempi always
seem just right, so that the phrasing allows the tone of the instrument
to make its mark and the flow of Bach's inspiration to communicate naturally.
Curtis plays a splendidly renovated instrument by Christian
Zell from 1728. Getting the right sound for a harpsichord, as for a
guitar, is not necessarily easy, and many a recording project has floundered
because of it. Not so here, since the Teldec engineers in Hamburg managed
just the right balance and atmosphere. Take any of the twelve suites
in the collection, and the same positive observations apply. The recording
is not too close, so that the workings of the instrument become distracting,
nor too distant, so that the music lacks impact and drama.
By Bach's time keyboard instruments had come to dominate
solo music-making, and since there were no recitals of the kind we know
today, his fundamental keyboard style was a private one without regard
to deliberate ostentation. The exact date of composition of these suites
is not known, but they were probably written around 1717, either during
his final year at the Court of Weimar or in the earlier part of his
six-year period as kapellmeister at Cöthen (1717-1723).
While the French suites clearly take inspiration from
Lully's approach, in following a Prelude with a sequence of dance movements,
there is nothing particularly English about these impressive and substantial
pieces, and the origin of this title is something of a mystery. It is,
however, thought that Bach may have dedicated the music to 'a distinguished
Englishman', whose identity has remained unknown.
Given the common ground that the twelve compositions
contain, it becomes tempting to think that there is an easy formula
at work. And there is, to the extent that the dances are designed to
follow and develop from one another. But beyond that surface consideration,
the individual personality of each composition makes its mark, for which
all praise to Alan Curtis, since his interpretations really do bring
out the potential of the music. And one can ask for nothing more in
Bach, of all composers.