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English Suites BWV 806-811

Bach’s English Suites, Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Donald Satz wrote (October 7, 2000):
English Suite No. 4 in F major, BWV 809 - This suite is the sunniest and most upbeat of the six. The opening prelude, in 4/4 time, bears a thematic connection to Dieupart's Overture to his 3rd Suite in B minor.

Does this make Dieupart as worthy as Vivaldi? No need to answer that one. The F major prelude is invigorating and happy music. Performing it just right is not easy; there has to be some strong weight, but the piece is also playful. Blending these two features is the key to success. For me, the heart of the prelude is a series of linked episodes which are spun off from a main theme; in a great reading, each episode is memorable and follows naturally throughout the prelude.

Schiff gives us his version of "Bach Lite". It's the only version I know which is essentially best as background music. I never get any feeling that his interpretation has a foundation from which the episodes flow, and his episodes arrive and depart with little impact. Levin takes the "Power Bach" approach; although better than Schiff's concept, Levin obliterates the playfulness in the music. At Levin's level is Watchorn with a reading much slower than the other versions, but Levin is not Rosalyn Tureck and he's too light in texture and depth. Perahia does well; he's heavier than Schiff and lighter than Levin. However, his episodes come and go without much impact.

Leonhardt takes us to the good stuff. He's playful, has plenty of weight, and the episodes start to make connections while being strongly projected. Gould just does everything better than Leonhardt. His blending of playfulness and power is outstanding; each episode flows naturally from another and the basic theme. His beginning is particularly effective as he builds the music up to a magical early climax. That climax can hardly be noticed in the other versions.

The one word that sums up my current feeling about the Allemande is *wow*! I hadn't remembered how good the music is, and I was bowled over by its effect on me. The sequence is the common AABB. The first theme is uplifting and joyful, but the second theme is pure magic. In addition to having this wonderful piece to listen to, each of the six artists does a great job. Perahia is slow, inward, and mysterious. Watchorn is very slow and uplifting. Levin is exuberant, quick, and presents a seamless flow of music. Each one is a joy to listen to. And these are my least enjoyable versions!

Leonhardt, Gould, and Schiff are in a different league. Leonhardt is quite slow and strongly incisive. Every note and phrase is highlighted and examined. Although Leonhardt skips both repeats, I still marvel at his interpretation. Gould's is a commanding performance with a ceremonial/heroic swagger that only he can put across with supreme conviction; Gould only skips the second theme. Schiff's is the most gorgeous reading with phrases lovingly conveyed in a freely poetic manner; he also has a great seamless quality. Schiff observes both repeats. Sticking with repeats, I don't think it would be unreasonable to be a bit peeved with Gould and Leonhardt. However, some performances just overshadow the repeat issue; these two are among them.

The Courante is energetic and happy. Gould has those qualities, but he's rather choppy and his staccato is not sufficiently prominent. Schiff and Watchorn are very light and breezy, too much so for my tastes. Perahia, Levin, and Leonhardt give the best readings. Perahia would likely be preferred by most listeners; his pacing, accenting, and mix of happiness with some weight represent the best of a mainstream performance. Levin is a little darker and more forceful than Perahia; the music easily handles this approach. Leonhardt is the slowest and again skips both repeats, but he gets to the core of the music and his happiness is very deep.

It would be difficult to come up with as beautiful and life affirming a piece of music as the Sarabande. I think of the Sarabande as a series of ornamented variations on the initial theme, and each one is a joy to listen to. Schiff (very light), Levin (affirmative), and Leonhardt (aristocratic) give very good readings. But the other three versions are special. Gould mixes drama and sensitivity in superb fashion; he also highlights the voices and supplies a wealth of ornamentation. Perahia's performance is the most lovely with exquisite ornamentation. Watchorn is so satisfied with life that the performance sparkles at every moment. Also, each of the three versions delivers strongly to me that sense of a series of variations; that's how I like it.

Next are the Menuetts I and II. Rather infrequently, I come across a performance which seems to me perfect for a particular dance. That's how I feel about Leonhardt's reading. From the first chords, I am swept into the images of large ballrooms and exquisitely dressed royalty going through their paces. Gould's interpretation isn't quite in that scenario, but the swagger and part-playing he displays so well places him with Leonhardt.

Perahia does well with perhaps the best Menuett I, but II is softly focused. Schiff reverses things by delivering a strong and incisive Menuett II; his I is too light. Neither Watchorn nor Levin have much impact on me. They seem surface-bound and miles away from the world of dance and royalty.

Suite No. 4 concludes with an infectious Gigue which is sure to lift one's spirits. That's the feeling I get from Perahia's and Watchorn's performances; both artists sound like they must have had a great time playing the piece. The other versions are very good but lacking that last ounce of optimism.

Gould and Leonhardt really distinguish themselves in Suite No. 4. Their creativity and ability to penetrate the score is superb. Perahia gives another very good performance; my opinion of this set keeps rising. The other three versions are good, although Levin has some problems with the good cheer of the Suite. He tends to be rather heavy and unsmiling, not good traits for the moods of this music.

For the 5th English Suite, the six sets will be joined by Horszowski on a Nonesuch recording also having two Chopin nocturnes and Beethoven's Piano Sonata Opus 10, No. 2.



Continue on Part 5


English Suites BWV 806-811: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | English – Hewitt | English – Perahia Vol. 2 | English - Rousset | English - Watchorn | Rübsam – Part 4

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