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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 812-817 (c.1720-25).
Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812 [8:23]
Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813 [7:12]
Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814 [8:44]
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 815 [7:49]
Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 [10:02]
Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817 [9:17]
Thurston Dart (clavichord)
rec. January 1961, Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London.
ELOQUENCE 4829398 [52:07]

As an undergraduate in the 1960s I bought a copy of this recording, some three years after it was issued on LP by L’Oiseau-Lyre (SOL 60039). The sound was pretty grotty when played on the cheap portable record player which was all I had when away from home. But I listened through the inadequacies of my record player, and loved it – and, of course, as I played it repeatedly my dreadful equipment ensured that the sound got worse and worse. I can’t now remember how or when it disappeared, but that LP long since left my collection. So, hearing this remastered CD (There was an earlier reissue on CD, but I missed that – see below) has been like welcoming back an old friend I hadn’t seen (or in this case heard) for a long time. But there is an important difference – meet an old friend after a gap of more than 40 years and he or she doesn’t look quite how one remembers them; in this case, Dart’s eloquent performances (skillfully remastered by Chris Bernauer and heard through better equipment) sound much better than they did!

Thurston Dart was, of course, a distinguished and important scholar but, rather as his scholarly work never seems to be dogmatic, so when he is seated at the keyboard (whether that be harpsichord, organ or, as here, the clavichord) his scholarship seems to be in the service of his musical instincts without the slightest pedantry. At his best (which he is in these fine interpretations) Dart feels like a very ‘natural’ performer, his entire humanity (not just his scholarly mind) in intimate communication with and through the music.

It is typical of Dart the scholar’s healthily relaxed attitude that he was willing to omit the repeats in these suites, so as to ensure that the set of six suites could fit onto a 12-inch LP. If you insist on all repeats being played, then this is obviously not the recording for you. On the original LP each of the suites had a single track to itself, but on this reissue each movement is a separate track.

Dart’s instrument here is a clavichord made by Thomas Goff (1898-1975). A university friend of mine owned a Goff clavichord, so my ears were familiar with the sound, even before I bought the original LP. I found (and continue to find) the sound of the Goff clavichords sweet and delicate. Perhaps because the stringing in these instruments wasn’t over tense, they allow the skilled performer to achieve, through the technique known as bebung (a rocking up and down of the finger on a key), an effect akin to vibrato. Thurston Dart’s expressive, and subtle, use of this technique can be heard in several of the slower movements on this disc.

The music of the French Suites always sounds eminently danceable to my ears. Any dancing to the sound of the clavichord would, of course, have to be a gentle and intimate affair; but it certainly isn’t easy to sit entirely still when listening, say, to Dart’s playing of the courante in the First Suite or the Menuet in the Third. But, in truth, every movement in these six suites ‘sings’ under Dart’s fingers. His judgement of tempo seems well-nigh perfect (certainly in terms of the instrument he is playing). The slow movements are things of beauty and tenderness, while the faster movements are full of vitality and joy.

Back in 2001 this website carried a review by Kirk McElhearn of the previous CD reissue. There are two of Kirk’s judgements, succinctly phrased, which I cannot resist quoting (and endorsing): “Dart’s reading of the French suites is quite a masterpiece” and “Every Bach lover should own this disc”. The second of these quotations says something particularly important. Even now, recordings of music on the clavichord are often looked on as being for lovers of Early Music only. But surely all lovers of Western classical music are, by definition, “Bach lovers”?

There are, of course, fine and interesting performances of these suites on the harpsichord (e.g. by Christophe Rousset, Richard Egarr, Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood) and the piano (such as those by András Schiff, Angela Hewitt, Glenn Gould and Andre Gavrilov), but if allowed only one recording I think I would hold on to Dart’s.

This is an historic recording, but unlike many recordings to which that epithet is applied, this is not just an historical document, illustrative of its time. It is a recording which remains fully alive and pertinent, continuing to throw a distinctive light on some important music. It is a recording on which the music-making is emotionally engaged and engaging.

Glyn Pursglove

 

addendum

I see that your website has reviewed the new Decca Eloquence CD of Thurston Dart’s recordings of Bach’s French Suites. Your reviewer says that he ‘missed’ the earlier CD reissue, thereby implying that it is no longer available. This is not true. It has always been available as JMSCD 4 since I reissued it in the summer of 1998 under licence from Decca. There is no danger of its being deleted.

The master tapes of all of Dart’s clavichord recordings were remastered for me by people appointed by Decca (engineers formerly in their employment, I believe). The main difference between the new CD and my own must be that mine includes 12 minutes of music by Purcell and Croft, thus helping to full up what is otherwise a rather short measure CD. Its companion release – JMSCD 5 – includes music by Froberger (recorded in January 1961 at the same time as the Bach) and 10 minutes of clavichord music from Vol. 1 of Masters of Early English Keyboard Music recorded in 1954. Details of both these CDs are to be found on the Ismeron website.

Sincerely,

J. Martin Stafford / Ismeron

www.ismeron.co.uk



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