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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Overture and French Suites

French Overture BWV 831 (?date) [31:30]
French Suites (c.1722)
No.1 in D Minor BWV 812 [15:05]
No.2 in C Minor BWV 813 [15:18]
No.3 in B Minor BWV 814 [16:10]
No.4 in E Flat BWV 815 [14:16]
No.5 in G BWV 816 [17:38]
No.6 in E BWV 817 [17:07]
Prelude and Fugue in A Minor BWV 894 [10:57]
Paul Parsons: harpsichord
Rec. North Transept, Priory Church of Our Lady and St.Cuthbert, Worksop, England, March 2001
GUILD GMCD 7258/9 [2:18:42]


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It goes without saying that Johann Sebastian Bach is among the greatest composers who ever lived. It is simply hard to comprehend how a single individual could conceive of so much music in so many different combinations of instruments, not to mention the hundreds of works he wrote for church choirs. There was a time when he was obliged to produce a church cantata for each and every Sunday (198 in all!) – the mind truly boggles.

As the fairly extensive liner notes in this 2 disc set explain, we can sometimes lose sight of Bach’s humanity as a result of the sheer nature of his musical genius, and the great religious choral works and those for organ, as well as the Well Tempered Clavier, tend to imply that his great aim was to create works out of the range of ordinary men. However, as Derek Adlam points out "This overlooks the fact that stylised dance music formed a very large part of Bach’s output, and that these works allow us to understand better the true nature of his humanity and personality." He goes on to say that suites of instrumental dance pieces were well established by the 1650s. The principal form was to provide a core of 4 pieces, each representative of a different national temperament: Allemande, German in style and serious in content, Courante, gracefully French, Sarabande, dignified and Spanish, and a lively Gigue, possibly based on an English dance. To this core could be added further parts such as Bourees, Minuets, Gavottes and Polonaises. Given Bach’s supreme understanding of counterpoint it is not surprising that he elevated these types of works to new heights in his 3 sets of 6 suites for keyboard.

This two disc set presents all six of his French Suites plus his French Overture, BWV 831, and one of his Preludes and Fugues. I was immediately struck by the beautifully clear sound Paul Parsons achieves from this instrument which is a recent copy by Adlam/Burnett of a 1638 harpsichord made by Ioannes Ruckers (and which was lent by Richard and Katrina Burnett from their collection at the Finchcocks Living Museum of Music – It is a joy to realise how these skills of period instrument making are alive and well and practised in many countries today. The instrument Paul Parsons plays is a wonderful example of these skills with a truly authentic sound. His refined playing of these brilliant works makes this a set that will please all lovers of the harpsichord. As far as I am concerned, however, 2 CDs worth of this is too much for my musical appetite to digest in one sitting and I prefer to treat it as less of a feast and more of a buffet, and simply graze.

Steve Arloff

see also review by Kirk McElhearn

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