Bach: English Suites, BWV 806, 807, 808, 809, 810, 811

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Zig Zag-Territoires
WORKS: English Suites, BWV 806, 807, 808, 809, 810, 811
PERFORMER: Blandine Rannou (harpsichord)
CATALOGUE NO: ZZT 030401
The familiar title of these six suites has no stylistic implications whatsoever – Bach himself called them ‘Suites with Prelude’ in his fair copy of 1725. What distinguishes them from conventional French dance suites are these preludes, five of them strongly Italianate, organised and animated like Vivaldian concertos, but enriched with the contrapuntal ingenuity of this greatest of German Lutheran organists. Blandine Rannou sadly misses the point. In the second prelude, as if mistrusting the structural strength of Bach’s ritornello building-blocks and his reassuring da capo repeat, she exaggerates them with delays. Almost every sequence of the third prelude is heralded by a momentary rallentando, like a series of hurdles designed to break the pace. It makes for frustrating listening.

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Eighteenth-century European courts were steeped in French manners and entertainment, particularly dancing – Bach counted several French dancing-masters among his friends. While the dances of these suites are concert pieces – no one expected to tread a measure to them – they retain their functional heritage. Rannou’s extreme flexibility and often very slow pace are defensible in the allemandes, outmoded and no longer danced, but elsewhere she distorts the character. The sarabande of the Third Suite is so leisurely that its pulse becomes elusive. The galanteries, lighter, optional dances, bound along more spiritedly, though the second bourrée sits up and begs before gambolling away, while the E minor passepied has exactly the same tempo as the following gigue.

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There are strangely few alternatives from which to pick a benchmark – a gap for an opportunist, perhaps. But Colin Tilney has a strong stylistic sense (I’ve seen him at work with dancers) and he brings the preludes splendidly to life. Surprisingly, he plays an Italian instrument, which he justifies convincingly. Rannou’s harpsichord, a copy of a Northern European instrument, is warm and attractive, though her somewhat tenacious touch and an over-generous acoustic create a lot of reverberation. George Pratt