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English Suites BWV 806-811
Peter Watchorn (Harpsichord)
New Bach English Suites from Titanic

K-1

J.S. Bach: English Suites BWV 806-811 (The Works for Harpsichord, Vol. 1)

English Suites BWV 806-811 [31:19, 24:42, 21:48, 24:37, 23:52, 31:02]

Peter Watchorn (Harpsichord)

Titanic 254
Musica Ominia MO-0206

Oct 6&8, 1997

2-CD / TT: 157:21

Recorded at New Hope Methodist Church, Methuen, Massachusetts, USA.
Review: New Bach English Suites from Titanic
Buy this album at:
Titanic CD: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de
Musica Omnia CD: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de
Musica Omnia Music Download: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de

Donald Satz wrote (August 18, 1999):
The Titanic label has just released Bach's English Suites peformed on the harpsichord by Peter Watchorn who is a resident of Cambridge, Ma. and who also obtaind his PHD with a dissertation on the English Suites. This 2-CD set is volume 1 of a series of Bach's complete works for harpsichord. Being a small company, the series represents a major project for Titanic and certainly for Watchorn.

I've listened to the set about 10 times, and there's much to admire and enjoy. The playing is technically excellent, tempos are relatively standard, and recorded sound is very good. But, there's no magic; at no point did I feel that Watchorn was getting beneath the surface appeal of the music, something Leonhardt did consistently in his set. That's a shame, because complete sets of the English Suites are not plentiful.

Don's conclusion - Worthy of Purchase. Recommended primarily to serious collectors of Bach's harpsichord works.

 

Feedbach to the Review

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 7, 2006)
In August 1999 Donald Satz sent a review of recording of the English Suites by Peter Watchorn on Titanic label. See above.

More than 5 years later I received yesterday the following response from Peter Watchorn. I send it to you on his behalf, and it would also be published at the BCW. I have always wondered what the performers think of the opinions and reviews written about them and presented at the BCW. I believe that a civilised dialogue between performers and listeners can be fruitful to both sides.

Read & Enjoy,

Peter Watchorn [Cambridge, MA, USA] wrote (February 7, 2006):
Although Don Satz is, of course, entitled to his opinion, I fear that his comments might prevent others from investigating what I regard as one of my more important (and successful) recordings.

First, it was made on a very fine French style instrument (by the great US maker, Walter Burr, after Stehlin, since the English Suites are, paradoxically, very French in many details). It is also beautifully and faithfully recorded (which Don noted, in fact).

Second, my recording was made using my own detailed research, for it was on the English Suites that I based my DMA dissertation at Boston University. I thought a great deal about this music.

Third, I believe that one must take time to listen to Bach and absorb his music. Today many listeners, and performers, for that matter, are in far too much of a hurry to absorb this most complex music properly. Harpsichordists, I find, are especially prone to hurry Bach, leading to performances that are monotonous and two-dimensional, since excessive speed robs the harpsichord of any dynamic or expressive character. Perhaps that is why Bach performed on the piano has gained ascendency once again.

If, as Don observes, this recording sounds "serious", then it is so because the music itself is serious. Indeed, four of the six suites are written in minor keys, and some of the movements are among the darkest that Bach ever wrote (especially nos. 5 & 6). In my recording of the English Suites, I played literally all repeats, which makes some of these works very substantial (31 minutes for No. 6, I recall). It takes time to listen to them.

Fourth, Don's charge that I use too much legato and not enough articulation (both of which I reject completely) leads me to suspect that either:

1. The French harpsichord used it too smooth for h! is taste or

2. He didn't listen much beyond suite 1, which is by far the most French and legato (with its extensive use of French style brise, which demands sustained sound) of the six. With his comments in mind, I listened, once again, to the whole thing, and I must say that it still represents quite faithfully what I believe these works are all about. Do his comments apply to such movements as the preludes 2-6, gavottes, passepieds, bourrees etc. ? It seems to me that there is a whole world of varied articulation and colour contained therein. I certainly believe that the harpsichord should never be played so staccato that more "wood is heard than wire", but I find that a complete expressive palette, articulation-wise is clearly present here. Couperin's and Bach's ideal was for a beautiful cantabile, or singing style. I doubt that they would have expected or wanted dry, choppy playing as ! the general rule.

As my teacher, Isolde Ahlgrimm, used to say: "All legato" is the same as "all staccato", since neither approach by itself produces the contrast necessary to discern either properly. In this version of the English Suites, the careful listener will find plenty of both, plus lots of varied articulation throughout. My approach has always been (also in my later recordings, such as the toccatas, which sound different principally because they were performed on a large, German harpsichord) to make the music sound both vocal and rhetorical. No more or less articulation is required than is needed to make the point of the music, and reveal its inherent phrase structure clearly. The harpsichord soon tells the sensitive performer what the limits are.

Lastly, I hope that listeners will take the time and trouble to hear this great cycle r! ight through. I believe that this recording still contains some of my best work.

Don Satz mentioned that this recording lacked "any kind of magic" (compared, I recall, to Gustav Leonhardt's fine earlier recording for SEON, particularly). Interestingly, Dr. Leonhardt, whom I know quite well, himself had a directly opposite view of it, and took the time and trouble to express to me directly his great pleasure in this very recording. "Very lovely", were his precise words. I mention this not to drop names, but simply to illustrate how differing points of view should not cause us to overlook a recording that represents, for the artist, if not the listener, a substantial amount of time effort and investment. So, I hope, with all respect to Don Satz, that others will feel moved to investigate it for themselves.

Peter Bright wrote (February 7, 2006):
I found this response to Don's review very interesting. Although I don't have Watchorn's English Suites, I do have his recording of Bach's toccatas - I rate this one as the finest I have heard on harpsichord (and also recall that Don rated this very highly too). Incidentally, of all the recordings of the toccatas I own, my personal favourite remains Angela Hewitt's, on piano (closely followed by Watchorn).

I'd really welcome some more views on his English Suites - I don't think I have any versions on harpsichord (of recent piano versions, Angela Hewitt wins out over Perahia...).

John Pike wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Aryeh Oron] Very interesting. Not having heard this recording (unfortunately) I am unable to comment on Don's review or on this specific incident, but I do know that Brad has spoken very highly of Dr Watchorn's forthcoming release of WTC 1. I look forward to hearing Dr Watchorn's recordings myself.

Without in any way wanting to attack Don, for whom I have a lot of respect, I must say that what interests and concerns me very much is the very serious general issue of reviews placed on the BCW by people who are not really qualified to write reviews, myself included. We are all able to make comments about what we do or don't like, but few of us have the necessary expertise to formally review fairly the work of others who have have put a very great deal of time, thought and expertise into their recordings or performances.

I hopethat this will be a very sobering wake-up call to anyone who has felt tempted to criticise the work of someone in a formal review on the BCW. Remember that other people, far better qualified, such as Gustav Leonhardt in this example, may have a very different view of the work of a particular artist. So before deciding to trash an artist in a review on the BCW, remember that what you write is subjective and may be more than upsetting to the artist, who may well read it; it could also greatly harm their business unfairly and deprive people unnecessarily of hearing some fine music making.

It so happens that Don has been the subject of this incident, but there are others who have been guilty of far harsher and unfair criticism on the BCW in the past. They should know who they are and should stop it right now before any more outrageous damage is done. <>

Julian Mincham wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To John Pike] I very much agree with this. The commitment a musician puts into the research, learning and recording of a group of works like the six partitas (let alone the complete 48) is phenomenal and not always appreciated by armchair critics. Often it is a matter of wording, of course when a perfectly reasonable personal choice can sound like pontification, without meaning to be.This commitment is one of the reasons why I have so much respect for Ton Koopman's work even when I do not (rarely) enjoy his performances. He has studied, played and performed the organ and other keyboard works and through this alone brings an almost unique background and understanding to the cantatas and choral works he directs---again frequently as a practising musician performing continuo parts. This sort of commitment and involvement deserves the greatest of respect--and a second (third,? fourth? tenth?) re-think before dismissing his interpretive decisions.

Jan Hanford wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To John Pike] The idea that only someone of the stature of Gustav Leonhardt is "qualified" to review a recording makes me want to ask the question: who is the audience that these artists are recording for? Us or each other?

Who decides who is "qualified" to write reviews? What is "qualified"? And who decides that? All reviews are opinion, even the "qualified" ones (whatever that is).

I don't like the musical inbreeding that goes on; where so many of the artists know each other, have studied with each other, and then review and praise each other and their recordings and no one ever has anything negative to say.

We're the ones buying the records. It makes sense to me that we should be the ones reviewing them. Positive or harsh, I think it's important to be honest about how you feel about a recording.

I've been writing reviews at jsbach.org for over 10 years and I've written glowing praise and vicious condemnation. Artists love the praise, of course. I've received astonishingly nasty flame mail from artists whose recordings I didn't enjoy (even when I was polite about it). My reaction can only be: too bad. If you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen. The bottom line is that few musicians can handle negative reactions to their playing. Their egos just can't handle it.

Interestingly, I've received a few emails in reaction to my negative reviews from artists who agree with me. Now that is class. An artist who is willing to accept they are not the center of the universe and that someone can dislike something they've done. They can learn from the criticism and make a better recording next time. But there are few artists with that much confidence, intellectual curiousity and, frankly, humanity. It's usually the difference between a professional and an amateur.

Santu de Silva wrote (February 8, 2006):
Jan Hanford wrote:
>>> The idea that only someone of the stature of Gustav Leonhardt is "qualified" to review a recording makes me want to ask the question: who is the audience that these artists are recording for? Us or each other?
Who decides who is "qualified" to write reviews? What is "qualified"? And who decides that? All reviews are opinion, even the "qualified" ones (whatever that is).
<<<
I read the message as simply a plea for a second listening. Who says an artist has no right to ask for it? :)

Jan Hanford wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Santu de Silva] I wasn't talking about Peter Watchorn's message.

John Pike wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Jan Hanford] It may surprise you to hear that I agree with a lot of your e mail. I have no problem with well-balanced expressions by people of what they do or do not like, with reasoned argument. And I am a forthright person by nature. As you will see, I do not hesitate in criticising certain things on this list, while hopefully keeping within the rules. But some of what is published on the BCW, while purporting to be serious analysis of music making, is actually a load of unbalanced, unfounded tosh. This is very damaging indeed.

Donald Satz wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To John Pike] Since the comments below from John Pike and Peter Watchorn center on my review of Mr. Watchorn's recording of the English Suites, I'd like to add a few observations:

Mr. Watchorn states that I consider his readings "serious" in nature, but that is incorrect. I simply recommended his performances to 'serious' record collectors. So, the adjective applies to the listener, not the performances.

Mr. Watchorn speculates that I might not have listened to his set much beyond the 1st Suite. I take exception to his comment for the fact that I listened to his set along with a few others for many dozens of hours for the 6-part review that I accomplished and can be found on the Bach Cantatas website. This happens so often - the performer is not pleased with a review and assumes that careful listening did not take place on the part of the reviewer.

Mr. Watchorn brings up Gustav Leonhardt who referred to Watchorn's performances as "very lovely". I suppose that the inference is that I found the performances not to be lovely, and Leonhardt should certainly be believed before Don Satz. Mr. Watchorn paints my review as being a negative one, but this is not the case. That I didn't rate his performances as highly as those of Leonhardt, Gould, and Perahia is not a condemnation, just my conclusions of relative merit among different interpretations.

John Pike talks about the "trashing of an artist". I take exception to this comment as well. At no time did I trash Mr. Watchorn or his performances of the English Suites. I found his performances very fine, but not at the highest levels of the recorded competition.

John also brings up the subject of possessing the qualifications to do formal reviews. I don't know what John's standards are on this matter, but I believe that my overall background and knowledge of Bach's discography makes me qualified to perform the task. Of course, opinions are just that; even highly regarded professionals often disagree on the quality of performances.

I would also like to point out that I have done two other reviews of Bach recordings by Mr. Watchorn. I reviewed a few recordings of the Bach Toccatas and concluded that his Hänssler disc was the most rewarding of the group (Gould included - review on the Bach Cantatas website). The other review was of Mr. Watchorn's recording of the Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord on Musica Omnia where I had nothing but praise for his performances, although I was not as enthusiastic about his partner's role (again, review on Bach Cantatas website). So overall, my reviews of Watchorn recordings have been highly favorable.

I do not consider it reasonable for an artist to expect that all reviews of his recordings will be in the "praising" category. Also, I should relate that the Watchorn English Suites was the first recording of his I reviewed and my initial acquaintance with his artistry. That I went on and bought his Toccatas recording and the Sonatas set is a sign of my high regard for his performances.

One last thing. I do not place reviews on the Bach Cantatas website. I send my reviews to Classical Net and MusicWeb International. A few years ago, Aryeh Oron asked if I was agreeable to his plamy Bach reviews from Classical Net on his website; I answered in the affirmative.

Jan Hanford wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To John Pike] But John: How do you know it is tosh? It may be perfectly valid to someone else. You may not agree with someone else's analysis of music making but someone else might.

And I don't think any review is actually damaging. I've actually bought cd's based on bad reviews because I took the reviewer's comments in context related to my own sensibility.

Jan Hanford wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Donald Satz] What an excellent response, Don. Well done!

John Pike wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Donald Satz] I made it very clear in my comments that I was referring to a general rule, not to your review. I made it clear that I was not attacking you and that I have a lot of respect for your contributions on this list. I also made it clear that i have not heard the recording in question and, although I did not say so, I have not read this particular review of yours. My comments were concerned with a general concern I have of some people "trashing" the work of artists on the BCW. List rules prevent me from mentioning names but, in my view, I have seen some very unbalanced and unfounded criticisms on the BCW, sometimes of work which I suspect the person concerned has not even heard.

Any comment about such maters is, of necessity, subjective, including my own on this subject. This means that when comments are made, they should be balanced and justified so far as possible with evidence. Otherwise we have a free-for -all, where any old tom, dick or harry can write whatever they like with impunity. It can be extremely damaging to the artist concerned. So let us, by all means have rational, temperate, balanced and considered debates about qualities of recordings, but let us avoid some other comments which I maintain I have seen from some people (YOUR GOOD SELF NOT INCLUDED) which are unbalanced and unfounded. i can go no further without breaking list rules.

John Pike wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Jan Hanford] It is difficult to answer this question without giving examples and, in so doing, break list rules by "telling (a particular individual) how to behave". in any case, all comments in this field are inherently subjective. I think people should make this clear when writing reviews by using such phrases as "in my view" etc etc. Neil, for example is very good at this. Even though I do not always share his views, his reviews are balanced, careful and considered and he gives reasons for his comments. However, some other reviews I have read on the BCW just do not fall into this category.

For further thoughts of mine on this, please see my reply to Don.

Jan Hanford wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To John Pike] I disagree.

I think any old tom, dick or harry can write whatever they want about a recording. And I don't think they need to justify themselves. It's an opinion, not a statement of fact. No evidence is required for how you feel. You just do.

I'm very interested in what everyone/anyone thinks of a recording, particularly gut feelings, first impressions, etc. This isn't a classroom where everyone has to show their sources before they get a grade. It's a discussion; nobody has to prove themselves, IMO.

And I think most people understand any review or opinion given on this list is just that. To be accepted or dismissed. Everything should be read as "In my view..." because that's really what all of the discussion on this list is: people's views.

And I don't really understand what's so "damaging to the artist concerned." This is only one venue where they see things written about them. There are many more and they don't always play nice-nice. I see bad reviews all the time in the media. By "qualified" reviewers. If an artist is deeply affected by any review/discussion on this list then they need their head examined. It's discussion list, not Goldberg Magazine.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Jan Hanford] As an occasional reviewer myself - and an "unqualified" one, perhaps - I have to chime in to agree with Jan. Anyone has the right to their opinion. I think if someone can present their opinion cogently and with sufficient logic, rather than just saying "Wow, it's great" or "It sucks", then their reviews are valid. Period.

As an author, I've had good and bad reviews, and take them as they come. I am pleased by the good ones, and learn from the rest. Anyone who creates has to look at reviews with that attitude.

Donald Satz wrote (February 8, 2006):
Jan Hanford wrote:
< I wasn't talking about Peter Watchorn's message. >
With reference to Arch's comments, a performer is certainly within his rights to ask for a second listening. I want to point out that I listened to his set of the English Suites many times before making my conclusions and doing the review. Of course, I could do another review of the same set, but I would have a huge backlog of reviews if I was to re-review every recording that I do not praise. Also, if I reached the same conclusions as before, it would all be a waste of time.

Donald Satz wrote (February 8, 2006):
Jan Hanford wrote:
< What an excellent response, Don. Well done! >
Thank you, Jan. I wasn't particularly surprised with Mr. Watchorn's comments, but those from John were "out of the blue".

Jan Hanford wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Donald Satz] I don't think John was referring to your reviews or style. He was referring to "those who shall not be named." With whom he apparently disagrees.

But, if Peter Watchorn has a problem with Don's well-written, very civilised reviews then John's complaint about nasty reviews by "those who shall not be named" is kind of irrelevant.

IMO, of course.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Jan Hanford] Voldemort....

Santu de Silva wrote (February 8, 2006):
Jan Hanford wrote:
< I disagree.
I think any old tom, dick or harry can write whatever they want about a recording. And I don't think they need to justify themselves. It's an opinion, not a statement of fact. No evidence is required for how you feel. You just do.
I'm very interested in what everyone/anyone thinks of a recording, particularly gut feelings, first impressions, etc. This isn't a classroom where everyone has to show their sources before they get a grade. It's a discussion; nobody has to prove themselves, IMO. >
I have to agree with Jan Hanford on this issue, subject only to requiring minimal standards of politeness. John Pike's reverence for scholarship -or , at any rate, for qualifications- is rather stifling at times. This is a list for amateurs, first and last; even if we do prefer that all list members should be informed amateurs, we cannot -and perhaps should not- try to enforce that.

I feel strongly about this, and I will stop now, because I detest the hectoring tone that has crept into this message. All I ask is that my fellow list-members show as much restraint.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 9, 2006):
Jan Hanford wrote:
< But John: How do you know it is tosh? It may be perfectly valid to someone else. You may not agree with someone else's analysis of music making but someone else might.
And I don't think any review is actually damaging. I've actually bought cd's based on bad reviews because I took the reviewer's comments in context related to my own sensibility. >
I'd suggest that any "toshness" is primarily a matter of tone and attitude, in the style of writing, and in the respectfulness that reflects back upon the reviewer's own character. It might be somewhat different from review to review, written by the same person, depending what the topic is.

If a reviewer can come right out and say honestly that he/she simply doesn't fancy this particular recording or this particular approach to the music, because of different personal expectations he/she can spell out respectfully, then it's probably a fair review (even if the reviewer hated the disc, and even if some readers might disagree strongly). Not everybody will fancy everything. If a reviewer can take personal responsibility for his/her own preferences and expectations, the reader can see clearly that it'sa personal opinion and take into account the fact that everybody's different.

A guideline, at least for myself, is: I shouldn't write in some public review anything that I wouldn't have the nerve to say personally to the artist, face to face in private, if there's ever the chance to meet. If I have some serious disagreement with the work, I owe it to the artist to prepare my reasons (and, even better, a demonstration of an alternative if possible) before I write anything negative. Any disagreeing opinion I have had better be defensible, and with my evidence directly at hand, for the review to be a responsible and thoughtful one. Maybe the careful preparation of reasons might even cause me to change my mind more favorably, on further reflection!

As a performer and CD producer myself, I know from experience how much time, energy, and personal investment goes into the production of a recording. And therefore I tend to give more leeway when reviewing projects that I just don't fancy or "get", because I'd hope it would be the same both ways.

Drew (BWV846-893) wrote (February 9, 2006):
There seems to be a consensus developing, then, that reviews / critiques which appear on the BCW (and the Yahoo discussion groups associated with it) should, by GOSH, be POSH rather than TOSH and not MOSH ???

Sorry to JOSH,

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 9, 2006):
Peter Bright wrote:
< I'd really welcome some more views on his English Suites - I don't think I have any versions on harpsichord (of recent piano versions, Angela Hewitt wins out over Perahia...). >
I like Watchorn's set of English Suites very much. The harpsichord sounds terrific, Watchorn's playing is clear and crisp, and all repeats are taken. He uses the 4-foot stop quite a bit in various combinations with the 8-foot registers, and it gives a big exciting sound. The program notes by Watchorn are excellent, too, about all manner of thoughtful details in the music and around the compositions. I learned a lot by reading them.

It took me too long to get this set, and it's my own fault. I had heard some brief samples on Amazon's web site a few years ago, and at the time wasn't impressed enough to go further. But, hearing those samples again next to the real discs on a decent player, there's just no comparison. The web samples don't do the set any favors: muddying up the sound, thinning the tone, and wiping out interpretive details. The playing sounds so much more elegant away from the computer!

Having expressed this enthusiasm for the Watchorn set, I have to say also that I'm equally glad to have the Parmentier, Curtis, van Asperen, and Jaccottet sets for different reasons. Each of these fine harpsichordists brings out different and delightful qualities in the music. I wouldn't want to be without any of those. I also have the classic Leonhardt set on LP, but haven't got around to buying it on CD yet...mostly because I miss the repeats that aren't included.

On piano my favorites are both the Rubsam recordings: one each on Naxos and Bayer. My old review of Perahia's from 2001 expresses my misgivings about his approach: Amazon.com
Gould's is fun to put on occasionally, but I really don't like the way it sounds so anti-French in style.

I've played all the Bach suites, including the batch of miscellanea, and am firmly convinced that the English Suites are the most difficult of the lot (even though the Partitas sometimes make a more impressive sound). There are so many quirks, both stylistic and technical, that make these pieces hazardous. I suspect that's at least part of the reason why the English Suites aren't recorded as much as the other sets. Stamina, too: this music requires so much concentration from both the performer and listener.

Bruce the Fierce wrote (February 11, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< I like Watchorn's set of English Suites very much. >
I agree.

I recently bought Watchorn's English Suites & the Tudor/Jacobean set, largely as a result of having been impressed with the Hänssler Toccatas and Concertos.

On first hearing, the English Suites gave me an impression of ... well, "sobriety" or something. (It's tough to find just the right word.) On repeated hearings, I like them better each time. They're recordings that "wear well" with me.

Most recently, I listened to them last night over dinner alone (my wife being away this weekend). By the end of the 2 CD's and the bottle of wine, they were superb.

And the wine was nothing special. Must have been that the performances and the recording were ...

 

English Suites BWV 806-811: Details
Recordings:
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Reviews:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | English - Hewitt | English - Perahia Vol. 2 | English - Watchorn | Rübsam - Part 4
General Discussions:
Part 1

Peter Watchorn: Short Biography | Recordings of Vocal Works | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
New Bach English Suites from Titanic | Bach's Toccatas for Harpsichord from Watchorn & Troeger (3 Parts) | Peter Watchorn Finds a Home [Satz] | Review: Bach Violin and Harpsichord Sonatas [McElhearn]

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Last update: ęDecember 8, 2006 ę18:52:25