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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suites
Suite No. 1 in D minor BWV 812 [14:14]
Suite No. 2 in C minor BWV 813 [14:06]
Suite No. 3 in B minor BWV 814 [14:43]
Suite No. 4 in E flat major BWV 815 [16:02]
Suite No. 5 in G major BWV 816 [16:51]
Suite No. 6 in R major BWV 817 [15:10]
Murray Perahia (piano)
rec. July 2013, Funkhaus Nalepasstrasse, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 6565 [2 CDs: 43:20 + 48:19]

This is one of those sets which you know is ‘right’ from the first little ornament Murray Perahia throws in to the descending opening phrase of Bach’s Suite No. 1. Ornaments and extra passing notes are just that with these performances – not big stick-out features of the music, but essential little touches of colour and curls of gold-leaf that make this into something delightfully Baroque, even though we are of course listening on a modern instrument.

Perahia doesn’t imitate harpsichord sounds even though his use of the pedal is quite sparing. Impeccable technique is the surface gloss on interpretations that are carefully considered, with the balance between voices, harmony and rhythm creating what might arguably be considered ideal performances.

But what’s this: Murray Perahia on the Deutsche Grammophon label? Collectors of a certain age will remember his name being associated with CBS, which has since been taken over and renamed Sony Classical. Perahia’s long and successful recording career can be traced back to 1973 with his old label, and this 2016 release of The French Suites marks his debut on DG.

With superb sound and superlative performances this has to be counted a resounding success. Perahia is more measured than most in his tempi, but I don’t have the feeling of time dragging, even in a Gigue that concludes the Suite No. 1 that comes in at 2:52 when compared to András Schiff’s 2:06. Schiff’s Decca set from 1991 is generally swifter and more energetic in effect when compared to Perahia, but he also has a ‘rise and fall’ approach to phrasing which gives the music a more romantic feel – something I’ve found less attractive over the years, much as I still admire his Bach on the whole. In terms of lyrical feel Perahia is closer to Angela Hewitt, though here again there are widely differing interpretations, for instance of the beautiful Sarabande of this First Suite. Here, Hewitt takes us into a separate chamber in which intimate secrets are revealed over a nearly 4 minute timespan. I love her performances, but equally appreciate Perahia’s relatively unfussy reading of this movement, once again embellishing with impeccable taste, but traversing the phrases in a way which brings the musical narrative into a well-proportioned whole, keeping a prayer-like atmosphere while refusing to linger too reverently.

Another view on The French Suites takes us beyond what most would consider to be Perahia’s admirably measured and meticulous playing. Peter Hill on the Delphian label (review) exceeds Perahia’s timings most of the time, also without an impression of excess but with a generally gentler touch which creates its own atmosphere, like a one-to-one private concert. Perahia’s pearlescent playing is not dissimilar in impression, but his dynamics in melodic phrasing are a few degrees more extrovert, singing out into the acoustic in a way that you know the back walls are appreciating as much as the seats in the front row. Of course not everything is ‘slow’ as such, and dances such as the two linked Gavottes of the Suite No. 4 have plenty of life in them, even if you are used to Glenn Gould’s more intense tempi which turn most of the swifter movements into crystalline miniatures.

Without going into detail on every one of these French Suites, I’ve been playing these to anyone who has happened to be in range just to see what their response would be. From hardened professionals to ardent but critical appreciators in the music world the reaction has been almost universal. The attention is immediately grabbed followed by a softening of the eyes, a sensation of uplifting transport as the colour and subtlety of the playing develops, and before long a questioning ‘who’s that?’ Even if you have a truckload of recordings of the French Suites in your collection you are going want to add this one to their number once you’ve had even the briefest whiff of its rather magical qualities.

Dominy Clements



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