English Suites Nos 1-6
Sophie Yates (harpsichord)
Chandos CHAN 0826(2) 148:59 mins (2 discs)
Sophie Yates is an indefatigable champion of the music she records, and prefaces this double album with an illuminating essay on the little-known history of the English Suites. A handwritten copy by Bach’s youngest son – there is no autograph – bears the inscription ‘Fait pour les Anglois’, but the style is entirely French, partly through the music’s pervasion by dance forms, with the dancing master’s violin reflected in the way melody conveys rhythm. And partly because, at the same time, Bach wanted to reflect the prevalent French luthé keyboard style, which placed harmony to the fore: the clavecinistes of the day imitated the playing of the lutenists by using broken chords to give textures an added resonance.
The mighty instrument on which Yates plays is the perfect medium for the forcefulness of her ideas, but there are times when thatluthé style works against the music, particularly in the sarabandes which are the heart of each suite. The first sarabande is weighed down with its arpeggiations swamping the melody, and the same happens to the sarabande of the Fifth Suite, with its plodding bass-heavy tempo. The sarabande of the Third Suite, on the other hand, has luxurious grace.
Overall this is a fine set of recordings of works we don’t hear enough, and it offers many pleasurable moments. These include an intensely sweet and spacious ‘Allemande’ of the Second Suite, some light-hearted, high-stepping gavottes, and an elfin account of the Fifth Suite’s ‘Passepied’. The whole thing is wound up in great style, with the Sixth’s crazy trill-garlanded final ‘Gigue’ turning itself upside-down and inside-out with exuberant abandon.