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Henry PURCELL (1685-1759)
Suites for Harpsichord
Ewa Rzetecka-Niewiadomska (harpsichord)
rec. 2017, Grażyna and Kiejstut Bacewicz Academy of Music, Łódź, Poland
DUX 1437 [54:34]

Purcell’s suites for harpsichord were published in 1696 in A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet, the first keyboard collection in England devoted to a single composer. Suite 1 in G major, Z660 is the simplest and accordingly most evidently a ‘lesson’. On this CD, Ewa Rzetecka-Niewiadomska plays a French harpsichord made in Bruce Kennedy’s workshop in 2015, a copy of a Pascal Taskin instrument of 1769. She makes its Prelude imposing, arpeggiating the opening and closing chords and adopting quite a stately tempo. The interplay between the leading right hand and responding left is clear but rather formal. I compared it with the 1993 recording by Kenneth Gilbert on a 1671 Couchet/revamped Taskin harpsichord (Harmonia Mundi HMA 1951496). His faster tempo, timing at 0:29 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 0:42, is more relaxed and hospitable in its clearer sense of direction, without arpeggiating and with a smooth flow between the hands. The second movement Almand certainly features an imposing right hand in high tessitura; Rzetecka-Niewiadomska presents this brightly with a sense of majestic flourish and adds some enjoyable, bristling extra ornamentation early in the repeat of the opening half. In the second half, her scrupulous attention to the interplay between right and left hand clogs up the progression a little. While still courtly, Gilbert’s approach is more reflective but successfully sets against this more plentiful, adventurous and varied ornamentation in the repeats. He also makes the left-hand responses in the second half more of a courteous acknowledgement. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska begins the third movement Corant in a lively and spirited manner, with an abundance of trills, but in the second half her left-hand articulation is a touch too firm, making the close of the dance rather stiff. With a more laid-back approach at the outset, Gilbert shows how delightfully deft the interplay between the two hands can be in the second half as well as providing additional ornamentation in nifty passing notes in the repeats. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska presents the Minuet finale as snappily assertive but achieves variation through using the harpsichord lute-stop for the repeat of the first half, first delivery of the second half and in a closing repeat of that half’s final four bars. Gilbert also has this envoi-like extra closing repeat. His delivery is more carefree in manner yet equally crisp rhythmically and, as before, his ornamentation in repeats is more ingenious.

Suite 2 in G minor, Z661 is the longest of the eight. Here’s a very different Prelude (tr. 5) from that of the first suite, one of severe cast and dramatic urgency achieved by running semiquavers in both hands. In its terse yet disciplined propulsion and single-minded focus it anticipates Bach. The left hand chases the right until 0:38 when the roles are reversed, then switched again from 0:52. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska despatches all this in a fiery manner to exciting effect, crowned by the booming finality of the bottom G close, an octave below the standard bass G. Here I compared the 1994 recording by Terence Charlston on another Bruce Kennedy copy (Naxos 8.553982). Charlston is calmer and more objective. He sits back and observes and shapes the music in a comparatively unruffled yet concentrated and cumulatively impressive manner, whereas Rzetecka-Niewiadomska from the outset immerses herself and the listener in it. The second movement Almand is elaborate in rhythm and ornamentation, all to the service of a heartfelt, sad, even mournful, melody. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska makes its wide tessitura and the balance between the hands clear, but her firm approach to rhythmic articulation and delivery of ornamentation, steely and stoic, doesn’t sit well with the poignancy of the melody. Charlston takes the opposite approach: his grieving is more intimate and internalized, the ornamentation is presented as an integral part of it, though, unlike Rzetecka-Niewiadomska, not varied in the repeats. On the other hand, his faster delivery, timing at 3:24 against Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 4:04, creates a chaste, graceful, but ultimately rather bland flow. It’s difficult to get the mood just right, but I think Richard Egarr’s 2007 recording on a Joel Katzman harpsichord after Ruckers, does (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907428 now only available as a download). Egarr’s timing, at 3:46, lies between Charlston’s and Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s. He invests the melody with soulful poise and shape and for me is the most successful in adding ornamentation in the repeats while maintaining the overall mood. The third movement Corant is fully amenable to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s spruce, thrusting manner, even if in the process the climax of the melody in the second half seems a touch glossed over. Charlston goes for a quieter tunefulness, but with a joviality secured by the clarity of his articulation of the plentiful cross-rhythms and the light application of the climax which I find more satisfying. The fourth movement Saraband is cousin to the Almand, while its sorrow has more of a vein of pathos as the rising phrase of achievement ending its first half is downtrodden by the descent closing its second, emphasised by the coda added in the further repeat of the final four bars. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska presents the whole with majestic, unyielding gravity, in a tempo stately and sombre. Timing at 1:43 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 2:15, Charlston lissomly brings out the melody, subtly softening a shade further in the coda and in doing so the picture becomes one of a tender flower gradually yet ineluctably withering.

Suite 3 in G major, Z662 begins with a bang, a fanfare-like ostentatious display of imitation between the hands in whirling semiquaver figures. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska goes for grandeur and the effect is quite stunning but at the cost of some exhilaration. In this suite I’ll use Richard Egarr for comparison throughout. Initially calmer, he’s overall less flamboyant but brings exhilaration by making the imitation ever more distinct and does generate excitement when the ‘voices’, that’s hands, come together. The second movement Almand is winsome, being cheerful, optimistic and made more buoyant by frequent dotted rhythms while Rzetecka-Niewiadomska makes merry with more additional ornamentation on repeats than usual. The second half begins at the zenith of happiness but after this, in clarifying the balance and imitation between the hands, Rzetecka-Niewiadomska becomes sober in her tenacious concentration. Timing only four seconds longer at 3:34, Egarr makes the whole piece flow more daintily and manages its balance of melody, rhythm, imitation between the hands with an admirable equipoise even if this, in comparison with Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s first half, short-changes the melody a trifle, while his additional ornamentation on repeats is even more sparkling than Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s. A Courante makes an ebullient finale and Rzetecka-Niewiadomska gives it plenty of pep. Its second half is further spiced by the right hand frequently entering a half beat after the left begins the bar and, while Rzetecka-Niewiadomska makes this clear, its outré quality might be relished more. Timing at 2:06 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 1:45, Egarr presents the Courante first as a gently swinging piece, leaving his effervescence for the repeats’ additional ornamentation, while the rhythmic displacement in the second half is given more zip.

Suite 4 in A minor, Z663 has a Prelude which is from Rzetecka-Niewiadomska all rhetoric: an array of clusters of semiquavers which flourish over a sparse but neatly placed bass. She makes you feel you should be impressed though the piece is brief enough also to make you wonder why. Here I compared Martin Souter playing an actual historic harpsichord, made by Joseph Tisseran in 1700 (The Gift of Music CCLCD 011). Souter’s approach is completely different. With faster delivery, 0:43 against Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 0:53, he integrates the left (bass heard first) and right-hand elements which, matched with a considerably more mellow instrument, creates a piece of luxuriant dignity. To the second movement Almand Rzetecka-Niewiadomska brings an attractive combination of simplicity of demeanour yet forthrightness of purpose as the melody reaches its apex just after half way through the first half and then descends in four indulgent sequences only to rise again pertly. The second half is more meandering, its closing bars spinning out a rising then falling sequence of a four-note figure. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska gives us the impression there’s ample time available. Souter’s manner is quieter, his emphasis on simplicity and the perspicacity of his balancing of the hands and their rhythms, the melody and the imitation between the hands is ultimately more satisfying. The third movement Courante is given imperious treatment by Rzetecka-Niewiadomska. Not particularly loud, it still spits fire, confirmed in the second half’s prickly dotted rhythm echoes which allow no respite. Quite differently, Souter shows authority by being austere yet comparatively laid back. His show of majesty is in the contrastingly ornate flashes of additional embellishment in the repeats. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s additions are like adding scorpions. The Saraband finale has a wistful melody which is slightly hidden by her over-firm attention to the strong left hand. It’s also marred in the repeat of the first half by extravagant ornamentation. Lute-stop repeats would be effective, as Rzetecka-Niewiadomska supplies in Suite 1’s Minuet. Souter and his historic instrument bring to this piece a golden melodic glow. He’s a deal faster, timing at 1:16 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 1:48, but this and the softer tone of his instrument makes for a homelier effect and the easier absorption of embellishment.

Suite 5 in C major, Z666 sports another Prelude which anticipates Bach’s fluency and mastery of imitative counterpoint but, unlike that of Suite 2, this is a happy, constantly regenerating stream of semiquavers. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska, brilliant and brittle, exudes confidence and joie de vivre. I compared the 2007 recording by Pieter-Jan Belder (Brilliant Classics 93647). He’s a shade faster, taking 1:01 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 1:12 and is bursting with energy but the lighter tone of his Flemish harpsichord, by Cornelis Bom after Ruckers, makes for more refined, albeit less exciting, projection. The second movement Almand, though relatively calm in manner, is of a cheerful, even serene, character. It gathers itself gradually and gracefully though Rzetecka-Niewiadomska is perhaps overmuch studious about this before countering with frilly ornamentation in the first half repeat. The second half is curious, diverted at the end of its first phrase into an assertive upper register, then ponderously ascending again before demurely descending like a decorous bow. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska makes it sound like a carefully controlled experiment that doesn’t quite gel. Belder is more attractive in his calm, carefree approach to the first half though he arguably overdoes the extra embellishment on its repeat. His second half fits together more smoothly. The third movement Corant, straightforward and exuberant, takes up again the mood of the Prelude. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska gives it a convivial bounce and hearty embellishment that’s on the cusp of rowdy. Belder’s revelry is respectable yet easy-going while his abundant trills give the impression of glittering jewels. The Saraband finale provides a contented yet also intentionally stylish end to the proceedings. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska makes it tasteful yet, in the embellishments in the repeats, the purveyor of subversive fun. Timing at 1:37 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 1:21, Rzetecka-Niewiadomska is at first impression more staid and sober, but with generous trills in the repeats those glittering jewels I observed in the Corant seem now given out to all.

Suite 6 in D major, Z667 in its Prelude creates a façade of awe-inspiring grandeur, largely by florid semiquaver gatherings in the right hand occasionally fortified by the left. The grandeur is achieved by the generally low tessitura. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska presents the picture vividly. Kenneth Gilbert’s emphasis is on a flowing line and focus on the relationship, that’s proposition and assent, between the hands. It’s less impressive than Rzetecka-Niewiadomska, but you come away more with the feeling you’ve ingested the whole. Of the second movement Almand, Rzetecka-Niewiadomska takes an expansive view which clarifies its melodic contour though this is a bit like surveying the dance in slow motion. The pass is already sold in the tripping descent in the second bar (tr. 21, 0:08) which is a tad deliberate. Gilbert, timing at 2:50 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 3:28, allows the dance to flow blithely, joyously and unpretentiously, though he’s also helped by a lighter toned instrument. The Hornpipe finale requires a tripping, effervescent manner which Rzetecka-Niewiadomska supplies vivaciously. The faster Gilbert, 1:01 against Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 1:16, parades more frills but with less zest.

Suite 7 in D minor, Z668 is the only suite not to start with a Prelude and it’s quite possible it has been lost. Only Richard Egarr’s recording provides an improvised one, terse, solemn and ruminative, a fitting preparation for an Almand ‘Bell-barr’ marked ‘very slow’. At 5:21 in Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s CD it’s the longest single movement in the suites. Painstakingly articulated, it has the character of a tragic aria, though I felt that in Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s scrupulous attention to detail the accompaniment was at times too strongly apparent in relation to the melody. Her variation of ornaments in the repeats adds to the emotional intensity. Her second half becomes a little stiffer, or perhaps just too predictable and rigidly realized, albeit concentration and intensity remain high. Gilbert’s account is more intimately sweet and sad. Everything falls into place with clarity while the melody isn’t disturbed, though I feel Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s ornamentation in the repeats is more sensitive. The second movement Corant, despite its vigour, takes three sequences to work up a head of steam. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska presents it in a roistering manner and her second half becomes a flailing dance. Is this too wild for its courtly origins? Egarr, timing at 1:41 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 1:27, is much steadier and offers finesse but is correspondingly less gripping. The Hornpipe finale is likely to be the most familiar tune on this CD as it also exists for strings in the incidental music to the play The Married Beau. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska despatches it in a crisply venomous manner. You’d be hard put to dance it at this pace but her added passing notes in the repeat of the second strain are great fun. Gilbert begins with more courtly propriety yet as the piece progresses his passing notes prove increasingly racy.

Suite 8 in F major, Z669 has a Prelude (tr. 26) which is a study in shimmering semiquavers, imitation and from 0:17 a short passage of tight cross rhythms between the hands. This is virtuosity for its own sake and Rzetecka-Niewiadomska rises to the challenge with zest and a rich tone. Martin Souter puts that all to one side and agreeably distils the progress of the melody. In place of a wow factor he offers balm. The second movement Almand is the most exquisite of those in these suites. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s response is fastidious, quite expansive yet poised in relatively high tessitura and tripping descents. The bright aura is achieved by frequently scoring both hands in the treble clef, in the second half the left gently rhythmically counterpoising the right. Timing at 3:23, Rzetecka-Niewiadomska for me brings out the special nature of this dance more than Souter’s 2:38: this makes the progress of the melody and its pleasing floridity clear at the cost of making the cross rhythms of the second half a touch brusquely thrust forward. Souter does achieve contrast by using a meltingly smoothly muted registration in the repeats, akin to the effect of a lute-stop though not as distinctively different in timbre. The third movement Courante (tr. 28) is a cavorting piece of constant dotted-quaver/semiquaver couplets and quite angular line to which Rzetecka-Niewiadomska brings a carefree, quite merry athleticism. In the second half the melody becomes more decisive, but so does the left hand, perhaps over boisterously from Rzetecka-Niewiadomska, before a close from 1:41 which is celebratory in the manner of that of Purcell’s song ‘Sweeter than roses’. Though only timing at 2:17 to Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s 2:08, Souter seems considerably more laid back and the dance loses its sparkle, its interest confined to Souter’s ingenuity in additional ornamentation in the repeats, though in the second half Souter does balance right and left hands gratifyingly. The Minuet finale is another tune found in a version for strings, in this case in the incidental music for The Double Dealer. It has a mechanistic quality which becomes mantra-like in its frequent repetition of motifs. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s use of the lute-stop throughout draws attention to this. Souter’s account in standard registration is pert and then defiantly cheeky with his added embellishments in the second half repeat. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska relents and plays the final four bars again, in standard registration as a coda.

In this review I’ve learnt that not just the performer but the instrument used makes a big difference in how the pieces turn out. Rzetecka-Niewiadomska is at her best in those that respond to a rivetingly dramatic approach; at other times she can seem inflexible in her exactitude. She’s well recorded in clear, smoothly focussed sound, but is disadvantaged by full price and short playing time, with most of her competitors offering more playing time and leavening this feast of suites with Purcell’s stand-alone keyboard pieces.

Michael Greenhalgh


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