JS Bach: French Suites, BWV 812, 813, 814, 815, 816, 817

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LABELS: Ambroisie
WORKS: French Suites, BWV 812, 813, 814, 815, 816, 817
PERFORMER: Christophe Rousset (harpsichord)
Unlike the keyboard partitas, Bach’s English and French Suites – as far as we know, Bach never knew them by these stylistically defining and confining titles – remained unpublished during his lifetime. He seems to have worked intermittently on the French Suites over an extended period. Early drafts of some of the music appear in the first of the two Clavierbüchlein which he compiled for his second wife Anna Magdalena in 1722. All but the last of the suites probably date from around that time, though subsequent revisions and small additions deny the performer a definitive source. Christophe Rousset has chosen for his new recording versions copied by Bach’s contemporary Johann Caspar Vogler and by his pupil Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber. As with his recently released English Suites on the same label (reviewed March 2004), Rousset’s keenest rivals are Gustav Leonhardt (Sony), Kenneth Gilbert (Harmonia Mundi) and Alan Curtis (Teldec); and, where the present suites are concerned, Davitt Moroney (Virgin) and Masaaki Suzuki (BIS) offer further stiff competition. Rousset is generally a communicative performer whose characterful playing is underpinned by a very strong technique. His supple, rhythmically relaxed and unhurried view of allemandes makes considerable poetic appeal, offering effective contrast with his spirited account of the courantes which by convention follow them. These are strengths which are also to be found in Moroney’s set, while Leonhardt’s reading, perhaps, derives greater authority from his lucidly argued and more didactic approach; but his omission of too many repeats is often a source of disappointment. In summary, Rousset and Moroney, with their lively responses to dance rhythms, achieve a greater conviviality than their competitors in their performances of the French Suites; choosing between them may prove difficult since they deserve to share benchmark status. Nicholas Anderson