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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The French Suites Disc 1:
Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812
Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813
Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814
Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815
Disc 2: Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816
Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817
Suite in A minor, BWV 818a
Suite in E flat major, BWV 819a
Allemande, Alternative Version from BWV 818a Masaaki Suzuki, harpsichord
Recorded at Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, Japan, October 1999 (BWV 813-817), May 2001 (BWV 812), February 2002 (BWV 818a/819a)
BIS-CD-1113-4 [2 CDs: 64’35+75’33]


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Comparison Versions: Cates/Music & Arts, Hogwood/Decca, Moroney/Virgin Classics

Masaaki Suzuki has achieved an enviable position as a Bach performing artist of the highest order both as conductor and keyboard player. His on-going series of the Bach Cantatas consistently garners praise, and he also continues to record the Bach keyboard works. Further, his recording of Bach’s German Organ Mass is one of the finest on the market.

For his recording of the French Suites, Suzuki plays a Willem Kroesbergen harpsichord built in 1982 after an enlarged two-manual Ruckers. This is a gorgeous-sounding instrument set in a soundstage of exceptional depth and clarity.

Suzuki’s performances also have much to offer. Rhythms are supple, elegance is invested throughout the set, and trills/ornamentation are enticing. Most significant, Suzuki emphasizes the music’s all-important singing lines. This is Bach playing of great beauty with smooth lines prevalent in the Allemandes and sharp contours projected in the Courantes and Gigues. I am most impressed with Suzuki’s performance of the Gigue from Suite No. 5 that is Bach’s most compelling and towering Gigue. The brilliance, energy, and bustling activity of this music are wondrous, and Suzuki plays it with a controlled abandon that is irresistible; he also fully captures the macabre elements of the Gigue’s second section.

I do have a few reservations about the interpretations. First, the rounded contours in the Allemandes are a bit cloying in Suzuki’s hands. Second, changes in tempo and dynamics are infrequent and narrow in range. Most damaging, Suzuki’s treatment of the Sarabandes is a little under-nourished and generally does not bring out the inherent emotional depth of these poignant movements. An excellent example is the Sarabande of Suite No. 3 that is likely the most emotionally rich piece in all the Suites. In this Sarabande, Bach takes us from deep remorse to acceptance of our humanity, but Suzuki will not have any truck with remorse because his schematic of the French Suites does not allow it to intrude. The singing lines and beauty of form take priority.

Overall, Suzuki’s performances are within the traditional mainstream. However, he does deviate greatly in his interpretation of the Menuet from Suite No. 4. David Cates and most other artists give this piece a slow tempo and much contemplation. In contrast, Suzuki is quick and jaunty, changing the nature of the music. His approach has its appeal, but I find the contemplative route preferable. The sequence of Gavotte – Air – Menuet – Gigue needs the Menuet to strongly contrast with the three exuberant pieces. For whatever reason, Suzuki is not interested in providing this contrast.

The two additional Suites offered on Disc 2 are companion pieces that help fill up disc space and complement the styles Bach uses in his French Suites. Surprisingly, I find Suzuki more incisive in his phrasing in these two Suites and a fine alternative to the exceptional recordings from Hogwood and Moroney.

In summary, Suzuki’s account of the French Suites and their companion pieces has much to offer in terms of exuberance, elegance, beauty of form, and emphasis on the singing lines. Unfortunately, the readings are not exploratory nor do they stress the architectural detail or emotional depth of Bach’s music. More than anything else, ‘Bach is Beautiful’ is Suzuki’s calling card, and the set should be highly rewarding to those who place top priority on gorgeous music. Personally, I remain wedded to the comparison versions listed in the heading.

Don Satz

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