Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066–1069 [93:49]
Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr (harpsichord)
rec. The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, 2013
AAM RECORDS AAM003 [47:33 + 46:16]
Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066-1069
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken (violin)
rec. Begijnhofkerk, Sint Truiden (Belgium), 2012
ACCENT ACC24279 [79:17]
You might hope that, seeing these two recordings, that I’ll declare a preference. But I won’t: each is excellent in its own way. What I shall do is tell you how they differ so you can choose.
They start from the same premise: that to achieve optimum transparency of texture and dance-like rhythm Bach’s orchestral suites should be performed on period instruments with only one instrument to a part. Yet there are four distinct differences between them.
Difference 1 is economic: the Academy of Ancient Music takes 2 CDs where La Petite Bande takes one, costing about 25% less than the AAM’s. This is because the AAM’s director, harpsichordist Richard Egarr adopts the authentic procedure of repeating the second (fast) and third (slow) sections of the suites’ Overtures. LPB’s director, violinist Sigiswald Kuijken follows the common practice of not so doing. Yet in the da capo of the shorter paired dance movements, such as the Gavotte 1 and 2 of Suite 1, Kuijken makes the repeats while Egarr does not. Despite the inconsistency, I like both practices: Egarr’s repeats celebrate Bach’s counterpoint whereas Kuijken’s immerse you more in the experience of the dances.
Difference 2 is that Egarr performs at low ‘French’ pitch, A392, whereas Kuijken uses the standard baroque pitch of A415. This gives Egarr’s accounts an antique, burnished, rather autumnal quality where Kuijken offers the full dazzle of summer.
Difference 3 is that Egarr provides more variety in terms of varying the instrumentation in repeats: I detail this below.
Difference 4 is the recording: Egarr’s, in a somewhat more airy acoustic, places you close to the players where Kuijken seats you further back, giving you more perspective. Now for some detail on the performances.
Suite 1 features a group of 2 oboes and bassoon contrasted with one of strings. Kuijken’s account of the Overture is immediately striking for the sunny splendour of its confident attack and regal sound. The wind group is balanced at the head of the texture, the penetrating period oboe sound more trumpet-like than that of modern oboes. The flourish of the rising scale on demisemiquavers at 0:14 is thrilling and the doubling first violin is left rather in its shadow, but this is as much a matter of incisiveness of presentation as sonority. This characteristic is particularly notable in the second section (from 1:41). In this the wind instruments sometimes operate as a solo trio:. from 2:04, at other times and from 2:36 their contribution is layered over the strings. This trio operates with clarity and verve, the soloists eagerly imitating one another. The third and final section (from 4:41) Kuijken makes a forthright peroration. Egarr’s Overture has a sheenier sound because the glint of the period strings is more apparent. The wind instruments are balanced more equably with the strings so there’s more vertical detail apparent. With Kuijken you feel the emphasis is on the horizontal thrust of the musical line. Kuijken’s and Egarr’s basic timing is the same, yet Kuijken sounds very stimulating but a touch breathless. Egarr offers a more refined, distilled approach, with the contrapuntal entries clear and more attention is given to the relationship between upper and lower parts. By using a double bass as well as cello his bass is firmer. Kuijken only uses violone, arguing in his booklet note that the use of double bass only dates from the third decade of the 18th century. Egarr’s more prominent harpsichord contribution also adds more harmonic and rhythmic weight to the bass. Yet his emphasis, less excitingly than Kuijken, is on due measure and balance. There is, however, more breadth and sense of fulfilment in his third section.
In the dance movements Kuijken emphasizes style and courtliness where Egarr introduces more variety in that he varies the ensemble in the repeats. For instance, his first time playing of the two sections of the Courante uses strings alone, which is both more intimate and makes the finesse of the elaborate ornamentation more apparent. The wind instruments are added for the repeats. In the Gavotte, however, variety is already built in by Bach in that in Gavotte 2 the oboes are spotlit with the other instruments accompanying. Egarr creates a merrier, more rustic, open-air sound here. In Gavotte 1 Kuijken is lighter and more skipping where Egarr is arguably too sprightly. In the Forlane, where the theme in oboes and first violins is offset by shimmering running quavers in the second violins and violas, Kuijken’s basic time of 0:36 has a touch more pep than Egarr at 0:39. Kuijken’s balance of theme and accompaniment is also more appreciable. Egarr prefers the theme to dominate smoothly. Similarly in the Minuet 1 and 2 the slightly faster Kuijken is more vivacious and light. His Minuet 1 is attractively spruce and strutting, his Minuet 2 restful. Egarr’s Minuet 1 is more refined and introvert yet he effectively contrasts a warmer Minuet 2 that goes with more of a swing. Kuijken’s Bourrée 1 is stimulatingly nifty, as is his Bourrée 2, which is virtuoso on the edge of being playable. Egarr’s Bourrée 1 is more measured, heavier but heartier, his Bourrée 2, also more measured, jazzier and more meaty. Kuijken’s Passepied 1 makes a stylish summation but his Passepied 2, which features a counter-tune in the oboes over the Passepied 1 theme in the upper strings, achieves a laid-back flow at the expense of elegance of phrasing. Egarr’s Passepied 1 is creamily sedate. In Passepied 2 he balances the two themes more delicately and satisfyingly, partly because of his broader approach and firmer phrasing of the lower theme.
Suite 2 is distinctive in that it has a solo flute as one instrumental grouping or colour contrasted with strings. The first violin sometimes doubles the flute, sometimes supports or comments on it, even when the flute breaks free and provides the main melodic focus. This doesn’t happen until 2:31 in the Kuijken account, the flautist here being conductor Sigiswald’s younger brother Barthold, or at 2:53 in Egarr’s recording where the flautist is Rachel Brown. Egarr’s Overture is more measured (basic 5:25) than Kuijken’s (4:58) yet this initially calmer manner allows for a growing sense of purpose. While it seems that Brown and Egarr concentrate more on finesse, with for example a little additional ornamentation from the flute in the repeat of the introduction, they also show a more vital underlying pulse and growing sense of purpose as the piece develops. The Kuijkens achieve stylish progression from the outset but thereafter their clean projection, particularly in the slow concluding section (from 5:06) seems comparatively dispassionate. In the Rondeau Kuijken (basic timing 1:29) goes for a smooth, creamy delivery where Egarr (1:13) is pacier and more matey. The inner part contributions of second violin and viola add piquancy and Egarr brings to these an attractive, rather dour character. He also finds an airier presentation and a more flowing pulse in the slower Sarabande, albeit taken at virtually the same slow tempo as Kuijken, with a more meditative treatment of the repeat of the second strain. Kuijken prefers an air of pathos throughout. The particular interest of the paired Bourrées and Polonaises lies in the flute breaking free in the second of each to carry the flurry of notes while in the Bourrée 2 the first violin spices with a syncopated counter-rhythm and in the Polonaise Double the basso continuo plays the original Polonaise theme. In the Bourrées Egarr matches Kuijken in niftiness but emphasizes virtuosity more. In the Polonaise Kuijken struts tall while in the Polonaise Double gracefulness is his aim. In the Polonaise Egarr (basic 0:29 against Kuijken’s 0:35) skips more, whereas in the Polonaise Double (basic 0:30 against Kuijken’s 0:37) the flute has a more lightly decorative manner. In the Minuet Egarr is marginally more relaxed, the impression enhanced by even appoggiaturas rather than Kuijken’s clipped ones, the latter nevertheless relieving an otherwise smooth veneer. In the Badinerie Egarr (basic 0:52 against Kuijken’s 0:46) is more markedly measured, yet paradoxically there’s an attractive spring to its presentation with a racier first violin backing and extra flute ornamentation in the repeat.
Suite 3, with its 3 trumpets and timpani as well as 2 oboes and strings but no bassoon, has the most exultant, sunny splendour. In the Overture’s opening section the trumpets and drums have a punctuating, fanfare role but in the second section (Egarr from 2:57, Kuijken from 2:37) it’s more extended, even occasionally sporting the first violin’s semiquavers. Kuijken has great momentum, exuding confidence in the opening section and bringing a crisp lightness to the second. His timpani, however, are a touch reticent, taking care not to disturb the overall balance. I prefer the greater weight and bite of Egarr’s timpani but not his more measured basic tempo of 4:55 against Kuijken’s 4:46. This emphasizes courtliness and stylishness, with more light and shade, but at the expense of excitement. The Air is a special movement, the only one in the suites for strings alone and I prefer the greater intimacy of Kuijken’s approach led by his solo violin but clearly supported by the other strings. There’s a humanity about it, even spirituality not found elsewhere in the suites. Egarr’s account has an opulent, silky sheen and is very beautiful but comparatively impersonal, with all the parts seemingly having their own intense meditations but not Kuijken’s ensemble’s feeling of a shared vision. Kuijken’s Gavotte 1 is of jubilant bounce, his Gavotte 2 just as assertive but the solo trumpet’s trills at the end of phrases having a pleasing delicacy. Both Egarr’s Gavottes are more breezy, very much outdoor music and their basic presentation faster, 0:35 + 0:44 against Kuijken’s 0:39 + 0:50. Kuijken’s Bourrée is exciting in its pace and sense of rejoicing where the more measured Egarr, with a basic time of 0:48 against Kuijken’s 0:32, presents the piece more appreciably as a dance. In the Gigue Egarr is again broader, his basic time 1:33 against Kuijken’s 1:26. Kuijken offers festive splendour performed with relish. Egarr, however, has a strong sense of blossoming and as elsewhere more light and shade, depending on whether trumpets and drums are present.
Suite 4, with in addition to the forces of Suite 3 an extra oboe and bassoon and therefore a distinct woodwind group, is the most magnificent. The overture’s basic tempos here are 5:45 for Kuijken and 6:18 for Egarr. Kuijken brings a bright, gleaming introduction and skipping second section (tr. 20, 2:24). Even in the quieter passages featuring strings alone, Kuijken’s vitality of pulse never wavers. The closing section (5:52) he keeps brightly affirmative. Egarr’s overture is more sonorously majestic, measured, laid-back and analytical. What is clearer thereby is the intertwining alternation of semiquaver figurations between first violin and first oboe (CD2 tr. 6, from 0:54) while the trumpets’ and drums’ contribution is more festive and weighty. Egarr’s second section (2:40) has a rustic, merry nature, in comparison with Kuijken trundling along rather jocularly while his third section (6:34) is somewhat broader. Kuijken’s faster Bourrée 1 (basic 0:25 against Egarr’s 0:30) has the more élan. The way the strings comment on the oboes’ leading phrases in the first section and the oboes on the strings in the second and then the trumpets add the final seal is cheerier from Kuijken but the interplay from Egarr is still convivial. In the Bourrée 2 Kuijken’s tempo (basic 0:30 against Egarr’s 0:36) requires extraordinary virtuosity from the bassoon, where Egarr achieves greater neatness and clarity at the cost of exuberance. On the other hand, with Egarr you are able to appreciate more the deftness of the string bass semiquaver figurations. Kuijken’s Gavotte is slower and grander (basic 0:54 against Egarr’s 0:50) and he also emphasizes to advantage a majestic swell in the sustained notes, especially when these appear in the second section in a rising progression in the first trumpet. Both Egarr and Kuijken take the Minuets at virtually the same tempo but Egarr achieves more contrast and intimacy by presenting the first strain of Minuet 1 on strings alone and its repeat on oboes and bassoon alone, reserving the use of both groups together, which Kuijken presents as marked, for only the da capo repeat. Egarr’s initiative anticipates Bach’s use of strings alone in Minuet 2 which thereby continues in the same relaxed vein where Kuijken makes it more sober being, in his context, on diminished orchestral forces. The Réjouissance finale finds Egarr a touch faster (basic 1:18 against Kuijken’s 1:24) and more exhilarating because the light articulation of his strings and woodwind is bracingly contrasted with the greater weight of his trumpets and timpani.
There you have it: two excellent accounts with four distinct differences.