Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

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CharmNewton
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Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by CharmNewton » Sat Oct 10, 2020 12:39 pm

I had the pleasure of listening to five complete recordings of these suites over the past several weeks. The idea was to just listen each suite played by the five artists and then move on to the next. These were the recordings:

Glenn Gould Image

Bob Van Asperen Image

Helmut WalchaImage

Murray Perahia Image Image

Zuzana Ruzickova Image

I was surprised at how different these suites sounded in the interpretations of these players. This was especially true for the harpsichordists. Each had a wealth of coloristic options available as well as the unique sound of the instrument itself. I've read that Bach would have embraced the piano, and perhaps he would have, but I really preferred these works on the harpsichord, all of which could project power, sweetness, and in some cases even an organlike sonority. There are passages where Bach will blast a bass note. On the harpsichord these notes register with a colorful splat whereas on the piano they sound smoother and more blended, at least in these recordings (neither Gould nor Perahia try to spike these notes for effect). Gould and Perahia are different in how they approach these suites and perhaps Gould is sensitive to the coloristic limitations of the piano in his approach.

It seems Bach wanted to make a strong impression with these suites--they are virtuosic, at times moving, rhythmically appealing, occasionally humorous in a Haydnesque way (such as the bass note blasts) and melodically memorable, especially in the Sarabandes, Bourées and Passepieds. The Gigues that conclude are not simple dance movements and Bach often injects harmonic dissonance. In two of the Sarabandes, Bach wrote out how he wanted the repeats played.

The recordings themselves cover a wide time span--Walcha (1959), Gould (1977), Ruzickova (1982), Van Asperen (1992) and Perahia (1997). Ruzickova, in particular, plays these works with great variety of tonal color and I really looked forward to her readings as I got to them. Gould in monumental in the Suite No. 6. Perahia is very solid but probably the least imaginative of the players. He plays with great clarity, but little variety--his general approach to repeats is to play them softer. Walcha skips many of the repeats, Gould skips some of them, while the other players take all of them. On the piano, skipping repeats might be a good idea if one isn't going to do much different.

A note about the Brilliant Classics collection--recordings can vary from year to year as newer ones become available, so the Van Asperen recording may not be included in the latest incarnation. Mine dates from 2007.

In all a fun experience. I knew there was a good reason to buy all these recordings, even if it took a while for me to get to them. :-)

John

barney
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by barney » Sat Oct 10, 2020 1:22 pm

Thank you John for a very interesting post. I am really interested in your observations. I don't have many complete collectons of the English suites, but one I do have and like that you didn't mention is Angela Hewitt.

Rach3
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by Rach3 » Sat Oct 10, 2020 1:29 pm

Thank you, very interesting analysis.I do not have your recordings,and only one set of the English, Schiff’s cd set of several years ago on Decca.I do tend to enjoy the English Suites more than the French Suites.

maestrob
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by maestrob » Sun Oct 11, 2020 12:47 pm

Thanks, John, for a most interesting perspective on your listening experience. :)

I agree that Murray Perahia is quite a bit more subtle in his approach to these works and to Bach in general than others, but his understated readings do appeal to my taste, especially his recent release on DGG of the French Suites.

Frankly, I have not heard the harpsichord recordings that you reference, so I can't comment there in response to your detailed observations. However, I can recommend (as Barney does) Angela Hewitt, along with Anne-Marie McDermott (II & III), Anderszewski, and then Zhu-Xiaou Mei in the French Suites and the Goldbergs, hoping that the latter will soon explore the English Suites for us.

slofstra
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by slofstra » Sun Oct 11, 2020 1:00 pm

I remember buying the various Perahia Bach recordings as they came out - the English and the French Suites. But I haven't listened to them a great deal since. The Well-Tempered Clavier is my 'go to' in Bach. I can't get enough of it. But perhaps it's time to pull the English Suites and give them a spin myself.
I have them complete with Gould and Perahia, as mentioned.
I also have English Suite No.2 with Martha Argerich, and Nos. 4 and 6 with Richter. Not all that great a selection to choose from.

CharmNewton
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by CharmNewton » Sun Oct 11, 2020 11:05 pm

barney wrote:
Sat Oct 10, 2020 1:22 pm
Thank you John for a very interesting post. I am really interested in your observations. I don't have many complete collectons of the English suites, but one I do have and like that you didn't mention is Angela Hewitt.
Until recently I hadn't heard any of Ms. Hewitt's Bach recordings. The local classical station here in Portland, Oregon programs her work periodically and I like what I've heard. She produces a tone with body and a nice tonal bouquet. I went to Spotify to see if her recordings can be heard there. Unfortunately, not her Hyperion recordings (which also include the complete piano music of Ravel and a Beethoven Sonata cycle). Spotify does have a Chopin recital that she recorded for the Chopin Institute c. 2006. Her Bach collection has been re-issued at reduced price so at some point I'll seek it out.

John

CharmNewton
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by CharmNewton » Sun Oct 11, 2020 11:26 pm

Rach3 wrote:
Sat Oct 10, 2020 1:29 pm
Thank you, very interesting analysis.I do not have your recordings,and only one set of the English, Schiff’s cd set of several years ago on Decca.I do tend to enjoy the English Suites more than the French Suites.
I considered buying Schiff's collected Bach recordings before undertaking this adventure, but remembered the experience of listening to him perform WTC II from memory with two intermissions so did some listening on Spotify. I didn't enjoy them--they seemed clinical to me. I realize that isn't being fair. I've learned that it is best for me to just listen to individual works on a CD rather than just play the entire disc as the latter can be exhausting. I have quite a bit on music ripped to my old Zune player and will turn on Shuffle Play and listen in my racks when working in the yard or sweeping fall leaves and have been stopped in my tracks hearing a movement, aria or song in isolation from its disc mates, where it can get lost.

John

CharmNewton
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by CharmNewton » Sun Oct 11, 2020 11:43 pm

maestrob wrote:
Sun Oct 11, 2020 12:47 pm
Thanks, John, for a most interesting perspective on your listening experience. :)

I agree that Murray Perahia is quite a bit more subtle in his approach to these works and to Bach in general than others, but his understated readings do appeal to my taste, especially his recent release on DGG of the French Suites.

Frankly, I have not heard the harpsichord recordings that you reference, so I can't comment there in response to your detailed observations. However, I can recommend (as Barney does) Angela Hewitt, along with Anne-Marie McDermott (II & III), Anderszewski, and then Zhu-Xiaou Mei in the French Suites and the Goldbergs, hoping that the latter will soon explore the English Suites for us.
Harpsichords seem almost to be like people in their individuality and how a work can sound completely different in the hands of one artist over another and how that artist exploits the coloristic options available. Perhaps it is this coloristic variety that allows works to remain one key for their entirety.

John

CharmNewton
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by CharmNewton » Sun Oct 11, 2020 11:55 pm

slofstra wrote:
Sun Oct 11, 2020 1:00 pm
I remember buying the various Perahia Bach recordings as they came out - the English and the French Suites. But I haven't listened to them a great deal since. The Well-Tempered Clavier is my 'go to' in Bach. I can't get enough of it. But perhaps it's time to pull the English Suites and give them a spin myself.
I have them complete with Gould and Perahia, as mentioned.
I also have English Suite No.2 with Martha Argerich, and Nos. 4 and 6 with Richter. Not all that great a selection to choose from.
Between the Partitas, French Suites and English Suites, the last seem to be the least recorded as a set. I'm puzzled about that as these Suites have joy, humor, warmth and occasionally a chance to show off and wow.


The Préludes to these suites are long and Bach and molds sections together in a way that a player can trip on them like a speed bump if they try to go too fast and aren't paying attention.


I have the Argerich recording on LP and besides being a lovely disc has a beautiful smiling photo on the cover. She looks like she is having fun. If one could only get a photo of Richter with a smile. :-)


John

barney
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by barney » Mon Oct 12, 2020 7:39 am

Excellent point re Richter. I've watched the famous film,YouTube videos and have many pictures in books of Richter, and I can't recall hm smiling. He must have, surely.

maestrob
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by maestrob » Mon Oct 12, 2020 8:43 am

barney wrote:
Mon Oct 12, 2020 7:39 am
Excellent point re Richter. I've watched the famous film,YouTube videos and have many pictures in books of Richter, and I can't recall hm smiling. He must have, surely.
Neither did Rubinstein, for that matter, IIRC. He was famously stone-faced when he played. I guess he preferred to let the music speak for itself.

barney
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by barney » Mon Oct 12, 2020 5:23 pm

maestrob wrote:
Mon Oct 12, 2020 8:43 am
barney wrote:
Mon Oct 12, 2020 7:39 am
Excellent point re Richter. I've watched the famous film,YouTube videos and have many pictures in books of Richter, and I can't recall hm smiling. He must have, surely.
Neither did Rubinstein, for that matter, IIRC. He was famously stone-faced when he played. I guess he preferred to let the music speak for itself.
Indeed, and fair enough too. But I don't mean just at the piano, I mean I have no recollection of seeing him smile under any circumstances.

CharmNewton
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by CharmNewton » Mon Oct 12, 2020 10:04 pm

barney wrote:
Mon Oct 12, 2020 5:23 pm
maestrob wrote:
Mon Oct 12, 2020 8:43 am
barney wrote:
Mon Oct 12, 2020 7:39 am
Excellent point re Richter. I've watched the famous film,YouTube videos and have many pictures in books of Richter, and I can't recall hm smiling. He must have, surely.
Neither did Rubinstein, for that matter, IIRC. He was famously stone-faced when he played. I guess he preferred to let the music speak for itself.
Indeed, and fair enough too. But I don't mean just at the piano, I mean I have no recollection of seeing him smile under any circumstances.
There must be a picture of him somewhere of Richter with a puppy. :-)

John

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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by slofstra » Fri Oct 16, 2020 2:36 pm

I decided to give the English Suites a whirl today, so here are a few observations.
I began with Perahia's English Suite No. 2. The Prelude is an especial delight, with a lovely forward momentum while bringing out the polyphony of the piece through a very adept left hand. Then, going through the various dance segments, especially the slow sarabande, Perahia demonstrates a highly thoughtful approach, bringing out the unique character of each segment.

A few points from the notes of this CD release (paraphrased). The English suites have nothing English about them, being mostly based on French dances. Unlike the corresponding French dances though, Bach has written complex counterpoint for each melody, and it strikes me as I listen to more renditions that maintaining the dance like aspect of these pieces while bringing out the counterpoint is not an easy task.

Next up is the English Suite No. 2 as recorded by Gould. Also a delight, and Gould plays the Prelude with greater facility, and speed, than Perahia. You could say the result has either greater precision or sounds more mechanical, depending on your taste. Gould brings out the polyphony of the piece exceptionally well though.
In the slow sarabande, we're treated to some Gould vocalese, and I think that rather than the usual moaning, he's actually singing. The Bourree (I) is characteristic Gould. This segment is not as difficult to play, but at the same time, Perahia's more thoughtful approach makes his version a delight over Gould's. Speed and facility aren't everything. Gould also rips through the Gigue at lightning speed. Impressive, but Perahia works better for me in this segment also. With Gould it's all about the counterpoint, the dance aspect of the melodies, not so much.

Next up is Argerich's English Suite No. 2. I also play some of the Partita No.2 on this disc, and that is truly impressive and enjoyable. Argerich plays the Prelude (of the English Suite No.2) with a similar zest and facility, notably refreshing, but it does not work for me entirely, because care hasn't been taken with the bass counterpoint, played more in bursts, rather than exact synchronization with the melodic lines. The various dances are played with individual flavour, and sometimes that works, as in the Bourree, and sometimes not as much. Argerich is more of an intuitive player, always a delight, extremely facile and fluid, but in this case, the end result is not up to the Perahia disc.

For Richter I don't have the No.2 Suites, but I have one disc with Suites 3,4 and 6. I played the entire disc, but there is a problem. The bass is poorly recorded and at times also feels like too much pedal, so the counterpoint is not sharp. Very good playing, though, as always.

However, after an hour of that, I return to Perahia, and the improvement over the Richter disc is marked. I capped off this listening session with the first Perahia disc containing Suites 1, 3 and 6. It justifiably won a Grammy. (Grammy's are quite random in classical; this should be noted). The Prelude in Suite No. 6 on this disc is truly exceptional.

These are all good performances; the Perahia is the best, I think, because of the thought and care put into the performance and the disc. The Gould is also excellent.

Finally, the Perahia English Suites has been coupled with six other CDs, eight in total, in a budget rerelease, about $40 CDN.
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maestrob
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by maestrob » Sat Oct 17, 2020 8:16 am

Good morning, Henry!

I've long been a fan of Argerich's Bach, and regret that she did not record more. Her spirited playing is quite refreshing to my ears: I just love her enthusiasm. As you say, there are a few moments here and there that don't quite gel: maybe that's why she went on to other repertoire.

Glen Gould's inability to restrain his verbalizations has always been a turn-off for me, even though I admire his explorations tremendously.

I don't have the Richter set: was it this late recording?

Image

As for Perahia, his sensitivity and grace in this repertoire are qualities I've long admired, so I agree with your evaluation in many ways. In fact, Perahia is also my "go-to" artist when I want to hear Bach's piano music nowadays, although I do wish Beatrice Rana would explore more. Maybe she will. :)

Do listen to Zhu Xiaou Mei, if you get a chance.

Thanks for posting your thoughts.

slofstra
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by slofstra » Sat Oct 17, 2020 5:03 pm

It's the first CD in the comprehensive Richter Decca/Philips/DG box, recorded in March 1991, in Rolandseck, Germany.
I don't know if that matches up or not. Only the English Suites 3, 4 and 6 are included.

And I think he's smiling at those flowers.

maestrob
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by maestrob » Sun Oct 18, 2020 8:22 am

slofstra wrote:
Sat Oct 17, 2020 5:03 pm
It's the first CD in the comprehensive Richter Decca/Philips/DG box, recorded in March 1991, in Rolandseck, Germany.
I don't know if that matches up or not. Only the English Suites 3, 4 and 6 are included.

And I think he's smiling at those flowers.
Ok, sure, I have that and play that box every year, just to keep my memory fresh. The individual release I pictured looks like it was recorded around the same time and released in 2004 on a pirate label. It might be a complete live concert. I wonder why only Suites 3, 4 and 6 were released officially? Hmmmm.....

Even at that age, Richter was, well, Richter, wasn't he? :)

barney
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by barney » Sun Oct 18, 2020 11:29 am

slofstra wrote:
Sat Oct 17, 2020 5:03 pm
It's the first CD in the comprehensive Richter Decca/Philips/DG box, recorded in March 1991, in Rolandseck, Germany.
I don't know if that matches up or not. Only the English Suites 3, 4 and 6 are included.

And I think he's smiling at those flowers.
Hmmmm. Don't your lips twitch upwards in a smile? Mind you, by Richter's standards, that might be a rolling-on-the-floor belly laugh.

Rach3
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by Rach3 » Sun Oct 18, 2020 12:11 pm

barney wrote:
Sun Oct 18, 2020 11:29 am
Hmmmm. Don't your lips twitch upwards in a smile? Mind you, by Richter's standards, that might be a rolling-on-the-floor belly laugh.
Fww, in Monsaingeon's "Notebooks and Conversations" are several photos, ca.87, a few showing a twitch, but there are 5 real smiles,one with his Mother date not given,another with Muti at La Scala in 1994, one with Dorliac on the Queen Mary sailing to New York,date not given, one with Gilels date not given, and one 1964 with Picasso.There is also the cover of DGG Beethoven "Triple" Concerto recording on which Richter says they ( he,Rostropovich,Oistrakh) all smiled "like idiots."

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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by Lance » Sun Oct 18, 2020 6:57 pm

A most interesting discussion on JS Bach's English Suites. Like many others, I favour the English- over the French Suites though the latter certainly has its fine points as you would expect from Bach. I have most of those complete sets shown in the first post by John. It was actually Glenn Gould who opened my ears to much of Bach's keyboard music - and still does. Unlike his Candian counterpart, Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, did much less for me. If one is considering only complete sets of the English Suites, I would probably go with Perahia's as well - very refined playing. And I think of András Schiff (on the 12-CD Decca set) is also very fine. On the other hand, like Brian/Maesbrob, I almost think I prefer Zuzana Ružičková's harpsichord interpretations inasmuch as this was how Bach heard it in his mind's ears. While incarcerated in a concentration camp, hearing Bach's music in her mind was what kept Ružičková mentally alive and those mental studies seem very apparent in her recordings. Otherwise, I usually enjoy Bach's music on present day pianos, and like John/CharmNewton, I think Bach would have loved today's piano had he had the opportunity to play/hear it. Landowska recorded some English Suites on harpsichord, and Helmut Walcha, the blind harpsichord/organist recorded them all - very scholarly. Pianists who did not record all six English Suites include Backhaus, Richter, de Larrocha, Pogorelich, Pires, Gulda, S. Bunin, Myra Hess, Anda, Gieseking, Susan Starr, J-C Martins, Margulis, Nikolayeva, Jane Coop, and, no doubt, many others. How lucky we are to live in a time when we have so much available to compare and (hopefully) enjoy! There's something out there for just about everyone's personal music tastes.
Lance G. Hill
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barney
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Re: Comparative listening: Bach's English Suites

Post by barney » Mon Oct 19, 2020 7:24 am

Rach3 wrote:
Sun Oct 18, 2020 12:11 pm
barney wrote:
Sun Oct 18, 2020 11:29 am
Hmmmm. Don't your lips twitch upwards in a smile? Mind you, by Richter's standards, that might be a rolling-on-the-floor belly laugh.
Fww, in Monsaingeon's "Notebooks and Conversations" are several photos, ca.87, a few showing a twitch, but there are 5 real smiles,one with his Mother date not given,another with Muti at La Scala in 1994, one with Dorliac on the Queen Mary sailing to New York,date not given, one with Gilels date not given, and one 1964 with Picasso.There is also the cover of DGG Beethoven "Triple" Concerto recording on which Richter says they ( he,Rostropovich,Oistrakh) all smiled "like idiots."
Thanks. Got that book, must check it out.

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