The keyboard suite
in Germany goes back to the middle of
the 17th century. Although before dance
pieces were written by German composers,
only around the middle of the century
some of these were put together into
a suite. The first keyboard suite which
can be dated with any certainty was
composed by Johann Jakob Froberger and
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 went to France to study
French music, like Georg Muffat. At
the same time French keyboard music
was published in Germany. In his early
years Johann Sebastian Bach avidly collected
French keyboard music by masters like
Nivers, Lebègue, d'Anglebert
and Marchand. Here he found the dances
which were a fixed part of the keyboard
suite: allemande, courante, sarabande
and gigue. They are also the backbone
of the so-called 'French Suites'.
In France other dance
forms were included, like menuet, gavotte,
chaconne and passacaille. At the time
Bach worked at his English and French
Suites this kind of suites was already
old-fashioned. François Couperin
had published two books with keyboard
suites in 1714 and 1717 respectively,
and in them the traditional dance forms
gradually gave way to character pieces.
Bach seems to have
started the composition of the French
Suites in 1720. The 'Clavierbüchlein’
for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1722 contains
the first of the six French Suites.
The last suite was probably composed
in 1725. The suites have come down in
several manuscripts which contain many
differences in regard to articulation,
ornamentation, accidentals etc. This
can be explained from the fact that
Bach composed these suites first and
foremost as learning material for his
It is not known where
the name 'French Suites' comes from.
The suites have been referred to under
this name by the German organist and
theorist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1762),
but some scholars believe the name could
have had its origin in the Bach circle,
and be used to distinguish them from
the English Suites.
The six suites are
divided into two halves: the Suites
1 to 3 are in minor keys, the Suites
4 to 6 in major keys. There is an increase
in the number of dances the suites contain.
The first suite consists of the traditional
four dances mentioned above, with a
pair of menuets added. The second and
third suites contain six dances, the
suites 4 and 5 seven, and the collection
ends with the 6th suite, consisting
of 8 dances.
There are quite a number
of recordings of the French Suites around.
Does this new recording offer something
special which justifies its release?
Even though I don’t
know all recordings available I dare
to say it does. This is a very imaginative,
bold, even provocative interpretation.
It is always interesting, never boring,
never predictable. That doesn't mean
I agree with every aspect of it, but
this recording makes you listen again,
and very carefully to music you thought
you knew. That is a big compliment in
isn't afraid of adding a lot of ornamentation.
It is often said that Bach has written
so many ornaments himself that there
is not much room for adding even more.
And one shouldn't overdo it. Whether
that has happened here is debatable.
A good example is the sarabande of the
5th suite, which is abundantly ornamented.
As a result this is one of the most
dramatic movements of the whole set.
I also greatly enjoyed
the ornamentation - and the differentiation
in it - in the menuet II of Suite 1.
Something which is
set to upset people is the use of rubato.
Although it is used by other interpreters,
like Gustav Leonhardt, Brookshire goes
much further in its application than
any other I have heard. The sarabande
of the second suite is an impressive
example of the dramatic effect the use
of rubato has.
Brookshire is well
aware of the rhetorical character of
Bach's keyboard music as he shows for
instance in the allemande of the third
There are some minuses
in this recording, though. Sometimes
the tempi are very fast. I have nothing
against a high speed performance as
such, but I think in some cases Brookshire
goes a little overboard when the tempi
are so fast that the dance rhythm is
hardly noticeabe anymore, like in the
anglaise of Suite 3 or the courante
of the sixth suite.
And I believe an air
should be somewhat more 'cantabile'
than the two in this set (in the Suites
2 and 4).
is the way the repeats are dealt with.
I have no idea why some are played and
others are left out. I can't see any
Another thing is the
harpsichord. The booklet doesn't give
any details about the instrument used,
which - according my information - is
deliberate. It is a nice sounding instrument,
but here I would have preferred an instrument
with a stronger, more robust sound.
There are a couple
of technical matters to deal with.
Most of the time there
is hardly any silence between the dances
of a suite. That creates a continuing
flow of music and underlines the coherence
of the suites, but I would like to hear
the sound of the instrument disappear
at the end of a movement before the
next one starts.
In most cases the sound
has hardly disappeared even at the end
of a suite when the next one begins.
Again, this could be deliberate to emphasize
the coherence within the set of suites,
but I don't like it. And there is certainly
a strong connection between the suites,
but that is more important to the performer
than the listener. These suites were
never intended to be played at a stretch
anyway. Some breathing space between
the suites would have been nice.
The booklet gives something
to niggle as well. It is a matter of
taste, of course, but I find the layout
pretty awful. What is worse: the print
on the back of the tray is so small
that it is very hard to read the numbers
and titles of the tracks. The duration
of the individual tracks isn't given,
by the way.
I don't like the fact
that on the cover the name of the performer
is easier to read than that of the composer.
It is a matter of priorities; here they
seem wrong to me.
The same goes for the
text in the booklet. The liner notes
are written by Bradley Brookshire himself,
and start with a glowing curriculum
vitae, apparently written by the performer
himself. I understand that musicians
can't avoid a kind of self-promotion,
but in my view it goes too far here.
It would have given a more sympathetic
impression if someone else had listed
the performer’s credentials.
Brookshire only gives
some information about the suites in
general. I would have liked to read
more about the individual suites as
I would strongly recommend
this disc: it makes you listen to these
suites as if you never heard them. And
that is the best thing that can be said
about a performance.
Johan van Veen