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  Classical Editor: Rob Barnett  
Founder Len Mullenger   

Johann Sebastian BACH

The French Suites

Disc 1:
Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814
Prelude in B minor, BWV 923
Menuets 1 & 2
Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 Prelude in G major, Well-Tempered Clavier II
Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813 Prelude in C minor, BWV 999
Menuets 1 & 2
Disc 2:
Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815
Prelude in E flat major, BWV 815a
Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812 Prelude in D minor, Well-Tempered Clavier I
Menuets 1 & 2
Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817 Prelude in E major, Well-Tempered Clavier I
Menuet Polonais – Petit Menuet
David Cates (harpsichord)
Recorded in Takilma, Oregon, November 2001
MUSIC & ARTS 1124 [2CDs: 95:00]

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Music& Arts

Comparisons: Moroney/Virgin Classics, Hogwood/Decca, Jarrett/ECM

From looking at the track listings, you might be wondering why these David Cates performances of Bach’s French Suites have one extra movement per Suite. Specifically, what are those preludes doing at the start of each Suite? Well, David Cates is giving his audience some additional music, using a line of thinking that’s quite enterprising.

As discussed in the liner notes written by Mr. Cates, there are some contemporary sources that include introductory preludes for the E major and E flat major French Suites. With this precedent in mind, Cates has taken on the assignment of attaching preludes from other Bach works to the remaining four Suites "to reflect the mood and spirit of the suite to which they are joined. It seemed a natural experiment, and I like the result."

Of course, there are Bach enthusiasts who do not care for such ‘tampering’ with the music of their favorite composer. However, I think it best to keep an open mind and determine whether the inclusion of the selected preludes adds or detracts from the musical experience.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Cates just adds music, because he also has a penchant for taking some away as well. With little exception, each movement of the French Suites is in AABB form, which simply means that there are two subjects and each of them is repeated. For whatever reason, Cates routinely skips the second subject repeats and is also not averse to skipping first subject repeats. I know many Bach fans who won’t even listen to a Bach performance unless the repeats are observed, so the market for the Cates set could be negatively impacted. The issue of repeats can be a contentious one, and Cates has placed himself right in the middle of the controversy.

As for David Cates himself, he was born in New York and currently is based in Berkeley, California. He has studied with Easley Blackwood, Jacob Lateiner, Roger Goodman, and Edward Parmentier. Most of the Cates discography comes from the Wildboar label and includes other Bach discs as well as a disc of Froberger harpsichord music.

For this Music & Arts release, Cates uses a 1999 harpsichord built by Owen Daly, after a harpsichord by Antoine Vaudry in 1681. If you venture to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, you can have a look at the Vaudry harpsichord up-close and personal. The Music & Arts liner notes indicate that Daly’s instrument brings out the French character of the music. However, the French Suites are no more French in nature than Bach’s English Suites are English in orientation. Sometimes titles can be very deceptive, particularly when they are penned by someone other than the composer as is the case with both the French and the English Suites.

French in nature or not, the French Suites are wonderful Bach creations that contain a smoother line than Bach’s English Suites or his Partitas for Keyboard. Although I generally am equally appreciative of Bach on piano or harpsichord, I must admit I find that the better presentation of the French Suites to be on harpsichord. The reason is a simple one based on the fact that the harpsichord has a sharper tone than the piano. Given the relatively smooth lines in the French Suites, use of the piano tends to exacerbate the rounded contours and result in less diverse and interesting performances. One might say that performances on piano take some of the ‘fizz’ out of the music.

My comparison versions represent a spectrum from Davitt Moroney’s ultra-sharp interpretations to the smooth-lined and warm performances of Keith Jarrett, Christopher Hogwood offering a fine blend of sharp and rounded contours with unerring structure and pacing. I’ve been steadily listening to these three versions over the years, and each one continues to impress me.

Cates offers us exceptional performances that are appropriately sharp in contour with an abundance of buoyancy and poignant utterances. I have no doubt that Cates is a prime time Bach keyboard artist fully the equal of Moroney, Jarrett and Hogwood. Further, the soundstage is ideal in that clarity and richness are at optimum levels.

Although Cates does not astound me at any point in his performances, I consider his readings the most consistently excellent of modern-day recordings. In addition to displaying a firm grasp of Bach’s architecture and soundworld, Cates fully delivers the myriad of emotional themes and does so in an incisive manner. He also is willing to take risks, a prime example being his ‘staggering’ technique that I discuss further on in the review.

Here’s a more detailed look at the music and the Cates performances:

Suite No. 1 in D minor – Even with the D minor Prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier Book II attached in front of the Allemande, Cates polishes off the work in just over 14 minutes compared to the usual length of 16 to 17 minutes without any prelude injected into the mix. This isn’t a case of fast tempos, but the lack of observance of repeats. In each movement, the second subject repeats are omitted, and Cates also skips the first subject repeat of the concluding Gigue.

The performances themselves are generally superb. The Allemande and the Sarabande are given a fine weight and serious nature, especially the totally bleak Sarabande. I love the drive in the Cates Courante, and his Gigue has exceptional detail and tension. My only reservation concerns the two courtly Menuets where Cates is a little too fast and jittery to summon up images of regal dancing.

Suite No. 2 in C minor – The C minor has an Air not found in Suite No. 1. This particular Air is similar to the concluding Gigue in that both are sharp and abrupt; as in Suite No. 1, Cates is fantastic when presenting Bach at his most impetuous and severe. I also love the Cates Allemande that tugs at the heart with poignant inflections and hesitations not surpassed in any other version I have heard. Also, this time around Cates is a little more lyrical with the Menuets, erasing the doubts I have about his treatment of the Menuets in Suite No. 1.

Suite No. 3 in B minor – More great performances and skipped repeats from Cates. However, unlike the preludes he uses in the first two Suites, the Prelude in B minor, BWV 923 allows for a natural lead-in for the Allemande.

There is a Cates performing trait that I noticed in the earlier Suites which reaches its fruition in the Sarabande of the Suite No. 3. It involves the technique of staggering voices/musical lines. For those not familiar with this term, it is based on the fact that most music has multiple lines – a primary melody line and one or more secondary lines. Staggering a musical line or voice simply means that the line plays slightly after the beat. Some folks prefer the explanation that the keyboard artist’s hands are totally in unison.

However it is explained, the effect is to tug at the rhythmic flow, and the results can be wonderful or a complete disaster. The potential for disaster is that the staggering can destroy the musical flow/momentum and also damage the work’s cohesion. Conversely, it can be distinctive and enhance the music’s diversity, richness of texture, and poignancy. These are exactly the results achieved by Cates with his staggered voices throughout the French Suites. He uses them judiciously, presents them at the right points in the score, and insures that they do not disturb the music’s cohesion. Cates shows himself to be a risk-taker who fully succeeds.

Suite No. 4 in E flat major – The 4th Suite is my favorite of the six. First, Bach’s joyous energy reaches it peak in the form of the lively Courante, vivacious Gavotte, hyper-active Air, and the Gigue that is a real jig in 6/8 time. Second, the Allemande with its ascending lines is one of the most uplifting keyboard pieces in Bach’s corpus. Lastly, the Menuet could well be the gorgeous Bach ever wrote. Cates plays this Suite to perfection. The high-energy movements are absolutely exhilarating and sharply focused, his Allemande is sure to lift one’s spirits, and he invests the Menuet with thought-provoking utterances of sublime beauty.

Suite No. 5 in G major – The music and performances continue in splendid fashion. The Gigue is a particularly compelling piece that might be the best gigue from any composer’s pen. The first section is brilliant, playful, and exuberant, while the second section takes us on a wild ride of ever-increasing tension and desperation. My wife has commented that this music is very busy, and she is correct. It’s teeming with activity and multiple themes of strong contrast. Cates again is exceptional in conveying Bach’s breadth of emotions although I remain loyal to the Moroney and Jarrett versions, which offer that extra ounce of abandon.

Suite No. 6 in E major – Cates concludes his program with another set of consistently excellent performances. I especially love his heavenly interpretation of the Allemande, and you won’t be able to stay still when listening to the high-octane Bourée.

I do have a minor quibble concerning the Prelude. It’s a great piece of music and can also be a wonderful introduction. However, as with the other Suites, the pause between the Prelude and Allemande is about eight seconds. That amount of time is simply too long to create a significant spillover effect. Still, I’m glad to have the pleasure of listening to Cates play the Prelude.

In conclusion, this newly issued recording of the French Suites is a must for every Bach keyboard enthusiast and would also be an excellent choice as one’s only version. David Cates offers a constant level of excellence I haven’t found in any other version I know. What Bach’s inspiration offers us is exactly what Cates provides. And although true to Bach’s soundworld, Cates is also imaginative and daring. He delivers the total package with harpsichord sound that can’t be beaten. I won’t be surprised if I cite the Cates set as one of the best recordings of 2004, and I urge readers to add it to their Bach library.

Don Satz

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