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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The French Suites for Solo Keyboard
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; Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816; Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817
Bob van Asperen (harpsichord)
Recorded German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany, August 2003
Hybrid SACD playable on SACD players and standard CD players
AEOLUS AE-10084 [78:20]


Comparison Sets:

Cates/Music & Arts, Gilbert/Harmonia Mundi, Hogwood/Decca, Jarrett/ECM, Moroney/Virgin Classics, Rannou/Zig Zag, Suzuki/BIS

Before addressing the highly esteemed Bob van Asperen's new recording of Bach's French Suites, I would like to give a short overview of the alternative recordings listed in the heading with emphasis on their particular strengths and weaknesses. This should be helpful in explaining where van Asperen's performances reside in the mix.

There’s a wide diversity of interpretation. Kenneth Gilbert has been a leading early music keyboard specialist for decades. His 1975 recording of the French Suites represents "Basic Bach" in the best sense: no frills or intervention, just a respectful adherence to the music in order to convey the emotional content. With unerring accuracy, Gilbert strikes to the essence of each movement. Given exceptional sonics for the time, this is a version that most folks should find highly satisfying. Essentially, Gilbert is a most reliable guide into Bach's sound-world.

Christopher Hogwood is another reliable guide in his Decca recording made in 1984. His phrasing does have some rigidity to it and he doesn't dig as deeply into the Sarabandes as Gilbert, but he certainly offers a very attractive ceremonial accent, imparts great energy and gusto to the fast movements, and his harpsichords have gorgeous sound backed-up with outstanding sonics: lower voices ring out strongly and with superior definition.

Neither Gilbert nor Hogwood are particularly keen on supple phrasing, but Masaaki Suzuki more than makes up for it in his recent recording on BIS. This is "Elegant Bach" with much legato and priority on beautiful phrasing. However, Suzuki rises to the occasion when thrust and tension are required as in the Gigue from the Suite in G major where he gives a blistering account replete with macabre activity in the second section. On the debit side, the Sarabandes and Allemandes tend to be emotionally light and some of Suzuki's ornamentation is rather fussy and calls attention to itself instead of contributing to the music's structure and themes.

The young harpsichordist Blandine Rannou easily holds up to the high standards of the other comparators and often surpasses them. Her interpretation has no peers in the areas of rhythmic flow, beauty of phrasing, and the capturing of the bustling activity of the Gigue movements; most significant, I know of no other recording of the French Suites that is as life-affirming as Rannou's. If the performances have any flaws, they come from a lack of introspection and exploration of Bach's musical arguments.

The famous jazz musician Keith Jarrett has made a few Bach recordings for ECM, and his set of the French Suites is one of his better efforts. The performances are silky-smooth with more legato than in any other alternative harpsichord set. With seamless phrasing, Jarrett brings out much of the music's beauty, but there is a surface quality to the interpretations, a limited sense of diversity in tempo and dynamics, and the Courantes tend to be sluggish and much slower than the norm. Ultimately, Jarrett's version does not have the architectural or emotional breadth to be considered among the best, resulting in music-making that is quite pleasurable but not very interesting.

Davitt Moroney, another highly regarded early music keyboard specialist, gives us "Sharp-Tongued Bach" in his Virgin Classics set. Contours and phrasing are often razor-sharp, a strong departure from most other recorded sets of the French Suites. Although lyricism is not lacking, it is the spiky and austere nature of his interpretations that stands out. Further, the sound-stage is sharp and penetrating, resulting in performances that might be too severe for those who prefer Bach on the piano. Anyone who feels that the French Suites represent mellow Bach needs to hear the Moroney set to get an opposite take on these works.

The comparison set from David Cates is the pick of the litter. No other version offers such exquisite conversational properties among the myriad voices; this is true dialogue delivered with pin-point detail. Also, Cates delivers the utmost in poignancy of the Allemandes and Sarabandes while playing the faster movements with great buoyancy and drive. To the extent that the French Suites lend themselves to a story-telling experience, Cates maximizes the impact.

Bob van Asperen, noted for his idiomatic and scholarly performances of early music keyboard works, displays his customary excellence in the French Suites: clarity of musical lines, sharply-etched phrasing, exceptional dialogue among voices and incisive emotional content. In relationship to the comparison versions, van Asperen's interpretations are closest to Moroney and Cates. His contours aren't as sharp as Moroney's, but the dialogue is more meaningful and just a little less compelling than in the Cates performances. Cates also has the advantage over van Asperen in the expressive content of the Allemandes and Sarabandes, significantly enhanced by a staggering technique where one of the musical lines is played slightly behind the beat; the effect is to create a tugging motion that increases the music's poignancy.

Except for the Allemandes and Sarabandes, van Asperen matches Cates in all respects. In the Courantes and Gigues, van Asperen displays great propulsion and biting rhythmic patterns. His Menuets possess a high degree of ceremony, and the two Bourrée movements are thrilling with virtuoso speed. Only the Air from Suite No. 4 disappoints with a slow pacing that takes some "wind out of the sails".

In case you are wondering how van Asperen fits all six Suites on one disc, I can assure you that it has nothing to do with fast tempos; his Asperen's tempos are generally well within the mainstream. But in the matter of repeats, our keyboardist omits many of them, especially those of relatively long duration.

Bob van Asperen plays the Christian Vater harpsichord housed in the German National Museum at Nuremberg. Built in 1738, the Vater has a lovely tone with plenty of crispness, although it's a bit underwhelming in the lowest registers. The standard CD sonics are excellent, and the multi-channel SACD layer reveals enhanced clarity and depth. However, there is a relatively high degree of reverberation that keeps the sound from being ideal.

In summary, the new van Asperen recording of Bach's French Suites is of high quality and fully equal to the best alternative versions excepting the set from David Cates. Although Aeolus recordings are premium-priced, having all six Suites on one disc offers additional incentive to acquire one of the finest Bach keyboard CDs on the market. Further, it is the only French Suites set in SACD format. I strongly recommend that Bach keyboard music enthusiasts acquire the recording. Just keep in mind that the Cates set is the essential one for the music library.

Don Satz



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