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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
English Suites Nos. 1-6
French Suites Nos. 1-6
Alan Curtis (harpsichord)
Rec July 1979, Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg

APEX 0927 40808 2 (Suites 1 & 2) [58.55]
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APEX 0927 40814 2 (Suites 3 & 4) [57.21]
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APEX 0927 40813 2 (Suites 5 & 6) [69.04]
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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.

Terry Barfoot


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