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French Suites BWV 812-817
David Cates (Harpsichord)
Catesís Bach

K-2

J.S. Bach: The French Suites

French Suites BWV 812-817 [14:32, 12:46, 13:24, 14:25, 18:03, 16:18]
Prelude in B minor (by Wilhelm Hieronymous Pachelbel, not J.S. Bach), BWV 923 [3:17]

David Cates (Harpsichord)

Music & Arts

Nov 2001

2-CD / TT: 95:00

Recorded in Takilma, Oregon, USA.
Short Review of the David Cates Set of Bach's French Suites
Review: Catesís Bach
Buy this album at: Amazon.com

Catesís Bach

Steve Schwartz wrote (March 8, 2004):
Summary for the Busy Executive: For some, probably over the top.

Of the sets of keyboard music Bach composed - the Goldberg Variations, the Well-tempered Clavier, the partitas, and the English Suites Ė the French Suites are probably his least complicated. They lack the dramatic contrasts of the English Suites, the keyboard brilliance of the partitas, and the architectural mastery of the Goldbergs. "Complication" is, of course, a relative term (it's, after all, Bach), and these suites still function at a higher level than something like Handel's otherwise delightful keyboard pieces.

I suppose the performer must face the question of what to do with these works, since they really are, for Bach, rather low-key, and, of course, the composer provides very little interpretive help. Bach has further obscured things by failing to provide, as in the English Suites, a first-movement prelude for all but the fourth suite, and yet one finds documentary evidence for the sixth that links a fugitive piece to the suite as a prelude. For a music historian, this counts as a strong precedent: one can reasonably tack on a prelude (in the same key) to each of the suites. This points, I think, to their relative structural laxity as complete works. You wouldn't dream of interpolating something into, say, the Goldbergs. So Cates has taken this path by beginning suites with preludes from Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier (from around the same period as the French Suites), one from Book II, and with two fugitive pieces, one for keyboard and one for lute.

That said, Cates's performance drove me crazy, as schmaltzy a Bach as I've heard in a while - Phil Spitalny rubatos, exaggerated tempo shifts, and an aversion to hitting two simultaneous notes cleanly, without a slight roll (left-hand finger first, right-hand finger a split second later). It's as if Cates really wants to do them on the piano - with
its gradation of dynamic and touch and its longer decay, far more forgiving of this approach - or doesn't trust the music to "speak" without extraordinary help. On the other hand, particularly in the fast pieces (played far more cleanly, by the way), I can't deny that he generates a real excitement, all too often missing from recordings of these pieces. Also, the sound of the particular harpsichord he plays is gorgeous, an
Owen Daly copy of 1681 Vaudry in the Victoria and Albert museum. As much as some of this turns me off, I can't dismiss Cates. He's a player who knows how to get music out of notes. I simply don't care for some of what he does, although others might.

Who knows? Cates, like Virgil Fox, may grow on me.

 

Feedback to the Review

Donald Satz wrote (March 8, 2004):
Steve Schwartz writes in his review of Bach's French Suites performed by David Cates:
< That said, Cates's performance drove me crazy, as schmaltzy a Bach as I've heard in a while - Phil Spitalny rubatos, exaggerated tempo shifts, and an aversion to hitting two simultaneous notes cleanly.... >
I almost feel as if Steve and I have been listening to different recordings. The "schmaltzy" designation really took me by surprise, as I find nothing schmaltzy or syrupy about the performances. If you want to hear schmaltzy Bach, try out Labadie or Barenboim. I also never noted any exaggerated tempo shifts either. Concerning the Cartes "aversion", that's simply using a staggering technique which isn't very unusual for the repertoire.

For those interested, my full review of the Cates 2-CD set is on MusicWeb. If I remember correctly, my last comment in the review is that I wouldn't be surprised if I cite the recording as one of my few favorites for 2004.

One last aside. After reading my review, Mr. Cates e-mailed me. I had stated that he skipped many repeats in his performances, and he wanted me to know that his preference would have been to observe them all, but that administrative decision-making took priority. I'm still not sure what that means, because there was plenty of unused disc space that would have accomodated the repeats.

Steve ended his review by saying that the Cates set might grow on him with additional time and hearings. I hope it does, and I also hope that continued listening doesn't lessen my high opinion of the set. That happens sometimes, and it's a major downer.

Miguel Muelle wrote (March 11, 2004):
Not long ago, I purchased this CD after reading Donald's review. It is one of the best purchases I have made recently. I have been listening to a lot of Bach on the piano lately, and this was a bit of a lark (not that I dislike harpsichord -- I actually like it very much, but since I began piano lessons... but I digress:o)...

I love David Cates' playing on this CD. The tempi that differ from the piano versions I have heard struck me as very appropriate (but what do I know...) and I agree that the sound of this instrument was beautiful. I especially liked the Allemande of the 6th suite. Schiff and Gould take this quite quickly, and it sounds light and happy. Cates' slower version sounds so loving and sadly plaintive...

I hope Steve does give it a few more chances, as this is beautiful music-making. US $.02, please.

French Suites BWV 812-817: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | French - Brookshire | French - Cates [Satz] | French - Cates [Schwartz] | French - Dart | French - A. Klein | French - Payne | French - Rannou | Rübsam - Part 1 | French - Suzuki

David Cates: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Short Review of the David Cates Set of Bach's French Suites | Catesís Bach

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Last update: żOctober 2, 2006 ż20:53:40