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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suites
Suite No 1 in D minor BWV 812 [16:15]
Suite No 2 in C minor BWV 813 [17:29]
Suite No 3 in B minor BWV 814 [17:57]
Suite No 4 in E-flat major BWV 815 [15:37]
Suite No 5 in G major BWV 816 [19:18]
Suite No 6 in E major BWV 817 [20:15]
Lilianna Stawarz (harpsichord)
rec. 24-25 January 2020, Mirror Hall of the Henryk Wieniawski General Primary and Secondary Music School, Łódź, Poland
DUX 1739/40 [51:53 + 55:19]

From the outset, you can hear Lilianna Stawarz seeking out the poetic in this fine recording of Bach’s French Suites. Tempi are judged nicely but tend towards measured consideration rather than helter-skelter drama, and slower movements such as the opening Allemande and that gorgeous Sarabande in the Suite No 1 are given plenty of expressive touches. Rubato flexibility is a feature of the playing here, but while it may take a moment to acclimatise in terms of style Stawarz’s sensitivity and skill is what makes this, to my ears at least, a recording to which one warms.

The recording itself is nicely balanced, the instrument placed in an ideal acoustic and with plenty of brightness and detail, but by no means in a sound that is fatiguing to the ear. The instrument itself has of course its special qualities in this regard. It is a copy by Krzysztof Kulis of a concert harpsichord built in 1769 and now in a museum in Edinburgh, and it has lovely low tones and a fine, singing treble. Its two manuals allow for nice contrasts of timbre, and it has features typical of the late school of French harpsichord makers.

Subtle changes of timbre are by no means the only contrasts here. Stawarz writes that, to her, the minor keys of the first three suites represent “a farewell to a beloved person, [embodying] sadness and loneliness” in connection with the death of Bach’s first wife Barbara. The second grouping of three suites in major keys “refer to the new chapter in Bach’s life alongside his beloved wife Anna Magdalena.” Sadness and joy are projected well in these recordings, and I found myself listening in new ways to this set of suites. As a collection that “seems to be a manifesto of freedom and imagination” in comparison with, for instance, Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, the picking out of Bach’s references to galant and cantabile styles gives license for the kind of expressive approach taken by Lilianna Stawarz, while at the same time by no means trashing the Bach idiom.
Comparisons recorded on harpsichord can be made which may or may not be useful, there being no definitive reference for this music. Masaaki Suzuki’s recording on the BIS label (review) also seeks out depths of expression, especially in the melodic lines, but with less of a tendency towards rubato. It is also interesting to compare both player’s approach to ornamentation, Suzuki being somewhat freer in this regard, but neither player really overdoing it given this cycle’s ‘French’ appellation. Christopher Hogwood’s Decca recording is rightly held up as something of a classic in harpsichord versions of this music, but his instrument is more needle-bright and has been recorded in a relatively small, dry acoustic. If you prefer something a bit more lush and luxurious, then Lilianna Stawarz’s very personal accounts may do you very well indeed.

Dominy Clements

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