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Hyperion Records

CDA67121/2 - Bach: The French Suites

Recording details: August 1995
Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany
Produced by Otto Ernst Wohlert
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: November 1995
DISCID: 5C111F1B 2F123B26
Total duration: 149 minutes 24 seconds


'Hewitt's playing makes Bach's music live, for me, in a way that even the greatest harpsichordists do not' (The Sunday Times)

The French Suites
Adagio  [3'17]
Fuga: Allegro  [6'03]
Andante  [4'02]
Allegro  [5'00]
Allemande  [3'08]
Courante  [2'14]
Sarabande  [3'51]
Menuet I and II  [3'08]
Gigue  [2'54]
Allemande  [2'53]
Courante  [2'00]
Sarabande  [3'38]
Air  [1'19]
Menuet I and II  [3'36]
Gigue  [2'32]
Allemande  [2'56]
Courante  [2'25]
Sarabande  [3'18]
Anglaise  [1'29]
Menuet and Trio  [3'39]
Gigue  [1'58]
Praeludium  [1'23]
Allemande  [2'39]
Courante  [1'51]
Sarabande  [2'53]
Gavotte I  [1'16]
Gavotte II  [2'42]
Menuet  [1'02]
Air  [1'44]
Gigue  [2'12]
Allemande  [2'51]
Courante  [1'37]
Sarabande  [5'11]
Gavotte  [1'13]
Bourrée  [1'17]
Loure  [2'08]
Gigue  [3'29]
Allemande  [2'34]
Courante  [1'33]
Sarabande  [3'24]
Gavotte  [1'13]
Polonaise  [1'27]
Bourrée  [1'20]
Menuet  [1'28]
Gigue  [2'14]
Prelude  [5'28]
Fugue  [4'09]

The rhythms of the dance have always provided composers with a vital source of inspiration. Bach was no exception, and a very high percentage of his music is related to the dance. Perhaps this is largely what gives it that marvellous vitality and spirit, and why it is so immediately appealing. The six French Suites contain some of Bach’s most attractive keyboard writing. The eight Little Preludes are among the most valuable pieces ever written for beginners, giving a wonderful introduction to voice imitation, pedal points, cadenza-like passages, and basic ornamentation. They cover many different moods and recall fond childhood memories. The remaining pieces on this recording are of a completely different nature. Both the Sonata in D minor, BWV964, and the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV894, are virtuoso pieces, intended to show off the ability of the performer. Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is the acknowledged master of Bach on the piano.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The rhythms of the dance have always provided composers with a vital source of inspiration. Bach was no exception, and a very high percentage of his music is related to the dance, whether or not it bears such a title. Perhaps this is largely what gives it that marvellous vitality and spirit, and why it is so immediately appealing. Although Bach’s music was never meant to be used for actual dancing, and indeed many of the dances, with time, developed into keyboard compositions quite far removed from their origins, the study of their main characteristics, tempos, rhythmic traits, and even steps (if we are fortunate enough to know someone who can dance the Baroque courante or minuet!) is essential to their understanding.

The six French Suites, which contain some of Bach’s most attractive keyboard writing, provide us with such an opportunity. The arrangement of contrasting dances, all in the same key, into a suite makes for a very satisfying musical composition. We begin with an allemande which, although it can range in mood from the very serious to the sprightly (hear, for instance, the contrast between those of suites 1 and 6), always sets the stage for things to come, with its long lines and processional character. We then have the courante, several types of which are present in these suites. Here we already see how Bach absorbed the particular styles of the French and Italian schools and, using elements of both, combined them with his own gifts for counterpoint and keyboard virtuosity. Although the courantes of suites 1 and 3 are of the slower, more majestic French type, those in the remaining suites are more akin to the livelier Italian corrente, though strikingly original in metre and figuration. The third movement of the traditional suite is the dignified and expressive sarabande. Slow, but still flowing, it requires a singing line and nobility of spirit. The first, in D minor, the gravest of the six, is almost chorale-like, while those in suites 2, 3, and 5 are really free arias (similar to the sarabande which was later used as the theme for the ‘Goldberg’ Variations). The accentuation of the second beat, a traditional feature of the dance, is illustrated in the E flat and E major sarabandes. Between this dance and the concluding gigue, Bach inserts several types of fashionable galanteries. The most popular, the minuet, is a dance of great poise and courtesy. When dancing it, the gentleman and lady would face each other almost constantly, making possible an intense courtship beneath a polite exterior. The gavotte, anglaise, and bourrée all have rustic origins, the bourrée being the most lively and humorous of the three, the gavotte the most gracious. The term ‘air’ was given to a movement more related to an instrumental composition than any particular dance, while the polonaise was initially called the ‘Polish minuet’, alluding to its similarity to that dance. One of my favourite moments in these suites is the G major loure – a theatrical dance, somewhat like a slow gigue.

To conclude these works, Bach writes six gigues that are all totally different from each other. The D minor one is in duple time, an archaic type more like a French overture in style with its dotted rhythms and trills. It is also a very difficult three-part fugue. The C minor gigue is a French canarie (so-called because it originated in the Canary Islands), with its persistent, sharply dotted rhythm. The gigue of the third suite is a brilliant, almost orchestral composition, not much like a jig at all! The E flat one, the first in 6/8 time, imitates, like many pieces in that key, hunting horns and is also an energetic fugue. The most brilliant, well-known, and technically challenging movement of all the suites is the G major gigue, sounding slightly like a cross between Vivaldi and a country fiddling jamboree. It is Bach at his best. The final gigue in E major is much slighter, and reminiscent of the A major Two-part Invention.

The French Suites fall easily into two groups – the first three suites being in the minor mode and thus more severe and reflective, the last three communicating the joy and radiance of the major keys. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two most popular (Nos 5 and 6) are from the latter, as they are instantly appealing in performance to the uninitiated listener. For the serious interpreter a big problem lies in the number of discrepancies in the various editions – not just in actual notes and note-values, but also in the order and number of movements. The history of the suites is a complicated one: although the autograph of most of the first five suites survives as part of the first Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach (Cöthen, 1722), later revisions (and there were many) along with the sixth suite now exist only in copies made by Bach’s students and acquaintances. Each of these is different, and few modern editions give us the full picture. It is wise, therefore, to consult as many as possible before deciding what you want to play.

This is especially important when considering the ornamentation. Although some versions are sparsely ornamented, this does not mean that the player would not have added his own. In fact, to be able to do so ‘in good taste’ was part of a good musical education. By comparing all the different versions we can at last begin to understand how this was done. Whatever you add, it must correspond to the character and feeling of each dance, and not overburden the melodic line. When playing the repeats, something different can be done to avoid monotony. No doubt the amount of ornamentation also depended upon the technical and musical skills of the player, and although it would be wrong to suppress it at will, certainly less is preferable to too much done awkwardly. Another thing to consider is that some types of ornamentation and arpeggiation can sound heavy and out of place on the resonant piano and are better suited to the harpsichord. Only with time and experience does the art of ornamentation become second nature.

In this recording I have included three movements absent from many modern editions. The second minuet in the C minor suite is found only in later sources, but certainly fits in perfectly well. The addition of the prelude and second gavotte to the fourth suite is more controversial. I admit that after discovering and learning them, I simply liked them so much that I was unable to leave them out! I had often felt that something was needed to emphasize the opening grandeur of the E flat allemande, and this prelude, with its short fughetta and arpeggiated chords, does exactly that. The gavotte is full of verve (it is Bach’s longest example of the dance) and for a few moments sounds exactly like the last movement of his Italian Concerto. Surely its musical worth outweighs any doubts about its authenticity (the copyist in this case was a close associate of C P E Bach).

Finally, why are they called ‘French’ suites? No satisfactory explanation has ever been given, and Bach himself never described them as such, simply entitling them ‘Suites pour le clavessin’ (‘Suites for harpsichord’). The adjective first appears twelve years after his death. Perhaps it was to distinguish them from their predecessors, the six English Suites (although these are more French in style than the French Suites). More importantly, these works will continue to be endlessly absorbing, and deserve to be heard more frequently on the concert platform.

The eighteen Little Preludes are among the most valuable pieces ever written for beginners. They form a bridge between the easiest pieces of the Anna Magdalena Notebook (1725) and the Two-part Inventions, giving the player a wonderful introduction to voice imitation, pedal points, cadenza-like passages, and basic ornamentation. They cover many different moods, from the affirmative (all three preludes in C major), to the tender (the C minor minuet, BWV924), the improvisatory (BWV940), the joyful (BWV927 and 937), and the very grand (BWV928). The C minor prelude, BWV999, was originally written for the lute. Many of them are far from easy (the A minor, BWV942, for instance), and require quite complicated fingering (BWV943). Even in these little pieces, big decisions have to be made concerning tempo, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and timing, and this challenges the teacher as much as the student. Bach wrote them for his son Wilhelm Friedemann and other pupils, but never grouped them into any particular arrangement. Like the French Suites, many of them survive only in copies made by another hand. There are several traditional groupings of which I have chosen one, changing the order of the first six to make a more pleasing progression in performance. For me they recall fond childhood memories, and are as fascinating now as they were then.

The first and last pieces on this recording are of a completely different nature to the pedagogic repertoire already discussed. Both the Sonata in D minor, BWV964, and the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV894, are virtuoso pieces, intended to show off the ability of the performer. They are consequently very effective in recital. Both exist in versions for other instruments, the sonata being Bach’s own transcription of his solo Violin Sonata in A minor, BWV1003, and the prelude and fugue appearing recycled as the outer movements of the Triple Concerto for flute, violin, solo harpsichord and strings, BWV1044. The keyboard arrangement of the sonata no doubt annoys violinists as so many of the horrendous difficulties to be overcome on the violin are easily rendered by two hands. There are many reports handed down of Bach playing his unaccompanied string pieces at the keyboard, so although this transcription again only survives in a copyist’s hand (that of Altnikol, his son-in-law), its authenticity is not really questionable. The polyphonic texture implied in the original is here beautifully realized without great changes to the melodic line. The second movement was admired by Bach’s Hamburg contemporary Mattheson, who praised his ability to construct such a long fugue from so short a subject. It is indeed a tour de force, demanding great concentration and skill (and probably scaring away many a player). The lovely F major andante brings us a moment of complete repose and tenderness. The finale is almost completely identical to the original, with the one line of music being divided between the two hands.

Bach’s creative genius flourished during his time as court organist (and later Konzertmeister) to Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar (1708–1717). There he not only composed most of the great organ works, but also transcribed twenty-one concertos (most of them by Vivaldi) for organ and harpsichord. Influences of both these genres can be heard in the A minor prelude and fugue, composed towards the end of his tenure. The prelude, with its opening motive in the right hand immediately repeated by the left, is in concerto style, alternating between tutti and solo passages. Triplets give it constant direction, interrupted only by cadenza-like passages, the last one reminding us of the D minor harpsichord concerto. The gigue fugue is in perpetual motion, never once letting up. The fact that Bach again uses triplets to propel it forward can, if one is not careful, provide for little contrast with the prelude. It is perhaps best to emphasize the difference in time signatures (4/4 for the prelude, 12/16 for the fugue). Would Bach have been able to improvise such a fugue on the spot? I think it most probable, for at that he was unbeatable!

Angela Hewitt © 1995

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