English Suites – in A, BWV806; in A minor, BWV807; in G minor, BWV808; in F, BWV809; in E minor, BWV810; in D minor, BWV811
Murray Perahia (piano)
Recorded July 1997 and July 1998 in Musica-Théâtre La Salle de Musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: August 2008
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88697310502 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 6 minutes
Murray Perahia, one of the world’s greatest pianists, is synonymous with Chopin, Mozart and Bartók and over the decade since these English Suites were recorded he has made some of the finest versions of the keyboard works of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, culminating in a magnificent account of Bach’s Partitas.
These performances of the English Suites originally appeared on two single discs a year apart. Now they are reissued at mid-price as a fold-out cardboard twofer (and a couple of minutes shorter than the printed timings suggest), with extensive programme notes by two commentators and an introduction by Perahia himself.
The title ‘English’ is absolutely meaningless, the major influence being the French dance style with an occasional dash of the Italian. Counterpoint is paramount and there are also underlying harmonic chordal patterns which lead each Suite to a final modulatory resolution.
Perahia’s profound understanding of structure is exhibited in every bar of these performances. He comes from a generation where it was assumed that if you played Bach on the piano then you would make full use of the pedals, rubato and the piano’s dynamic range. So throughout these renditions there is discreet use of the sustaining and loudness pedals, subtle rubato and extensive use of dynamic variation at forte and below. Tonally virtually every note has a singing quality, which never leads to monotony.
Every bar and phrase in these performances is alive. The ‘Prelude’ to the First Suite has a quiet sense of concentration, while the ‘Allemande’ has gorgeous touch. In the first ‘Courante’ there is a touch of steel in the right-hand and the second one is beautifully syncopated. ‘Authentic’-performance enthusiasts will shake their heads in disbelief at the romantic tone of the ‘Sarabande’ – it is gorgeous! A sailor’s hornpipe is brought to mind in a delightfully witty ‘Bourée I’, Perahia then bringing out the darker sonorities of its variant in the second such piece with stern deliverance. The delineation of line in the concluding ‘Gigue’ is exemplary.
Every Suite is full of such insights from Perahia. One appreciates the delightfully stately skip in the first bar of the Second Suite’s ‘Bourée II’, the strictness of the G minor’s ‘Allemande’, the precise left-hand in the same Suite’s ‘Gavotte’ and the interplay of strength of touch in the hands in the Fourth Suite’s first ‘Gavotte’. What runs through these tremendous performances is a profound sense of logic and humanity. Perahia really does make the final modulation of each Suite sound like the end of a journey.
I suppose that some will object to the minimal use of ornamentation, but this is actually an advantage. These are must-have performances. As an added bonus the sound is very good, being suitably warm, without losing clarity, and is realistically balanced.