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Hyperion Records

CDA67451/2 - Bach: The English Suites
CDA67451/2

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: September 2003
DISCID: FE10C913 1F10F612
Total duration: 143 minutes 37 seconds

CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK (The Sunday Times)
CD OF THE WEEK (Daily Telegraph)
DISC OF THE WEEK (BBC Radio 3)

'The standard of excellence Angela Hewitt has set in previous installments in her Hyperion Bach cycle continues unabated with the English Suites' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Once again, Angela Hewitt proves that she's one of the most penetrating interpreters of Bach on the piano, with a superlative account of the six English Suites. She's an astonishingly supple player, elegant in the French dance elements, brilliant in the Italianate flourishes, and fully in control of the works' complex chromaticisms. Another tour de force from this wonderful player' (The Independent)

'Now regarded as one of the most consistently refreshing interpreters of Bach on the modern piano…As ever, Hewitt brings this music to life with remarkably crisp articulation in the brisk contrapuntal movements, deep feeling in the sarabandes and exhilarating joie de vivre in the final gigues' (The Sunday Times)

'I thoroughly enjoy Hewitt's unaffected playing, her easy-going virtuosity, careful dynamics, and frequent grace, as well as power' (Fanfare, USA)

'This is arguably the finest recording of these works on modern piano. Hewitt projects the different characters of individual dances, as well as those of entire suites, with great beauty, clarity and refinement … this might well be the finest set of English Suites on the piano' (Goldberg)

The English Suites
CD1
Prelude  [2'08]
Allemande  [4'31]
Courante I  [1'58]
Courante II  [7'14]
Sarabande  [5'14]
Gigue  [2'52]
Prelude  [4'09]
Allemande  [4'04]
Courante  [2'15]
Gigue  [3'11]
Prelude  [3'14]
Allemande  [4'12]
Courante  [2'53]
Gavotte I and II  [3'31]
Gigue  [2'47]
CD2
Prelude  [4'33]
Allemande  [3'23]
Courante  [1'56]
Sarabande  [3'52]
Menuet I and II  [3'41]
Gigue  [3'10]
Prelude  [4'37]
Allemande  [4'18]
Courante  [2'30]
Sarabande  [3'01]
Gigue  [2'46]
Prelude  [7'23]
Allemande  [4'49]
Courante  [2'51]
Sarabande  [8'09]
Gavotte I and II  [4'29]
Gigue  [3'24]

With the English Suites (the 'English' is not Bach's and there is nothing particularly English about them) Angela Hewitt all but completes her survey of Bach's keyboard works (there will be one further CD mopping up various odds and ends). These six suites, along with the French Suites and the six Partitas, present Bach's mature thoughts on the standard baroque suite of dances and as such are the greatest examples of the form.

Unlike the smaller scale French Suites the English all begin with a large-scale prelude, often rather concerto-like and very virtuosic; these are works for a very accomplished professional player rather than the amateur that much keyboard music of the 18th century would have been aimed at.

Angela Hewitt rises to all the challenges in her usual superb style and needless to say these performances will meet with the acclaim of her previous Bach recordings.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
By the time Johann Sebastian Bach turned thirty-two years of age in 1717, he would have been at the height of his powers as a keyboard player. Since 1708, the year after his marriage to his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, he had held the post of organist and chamber musician at the court of the Dukes Wilhelm Ernst and Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar. Here he had a marvellous organ at his disposal, and it is likely that most of his big organ works date from this period. No doubt he was also called upon frequently to show off his virtuosity at the harpsichord. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in his biography of Bach published in 1802, writes that by 1717 Bach ‘had made such good use of his time, had played, composed, and studied so much and, by this unremitting zeal and diligence, acquired such a mastery over every part of the art, that he stood like a giant, able to trample all around him into dust’. One famous occurrence that set out to prove this point happened in that very year.

Although Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, said that his father was ‘anything but proud of his qualities and never let anyone feel his superiority’, Johann Sebastian agreed to participate in what became one of the most famous keyboard contests ever—or at least would have been, had it not been aborted. His contender was the French virtuoso, Jean-Louis Marchand, who was organist to Louis XIV at Versailles. Unlike Bach, Marchand was known for his vanity and arrogance. When his wife divorced him, and he was ordered to pay her half his income, he replied, ‘Sir, if my wife gets half of my salary, let her play half of the service’. In 1717 he decided to apply for the post of organist at the court of Dresden, whose rulers had converted to Catholicism. Their Conzertmeister, Jean-Baptiste Volumier, was not happy at the prospect of Marchand getting the job, so arranged for his friend Bach to be invited to challenge him. There are many conflicting reports as to what happened next, but it seems that two contests were planned: one on harpsichord and one the following day on organ. It was the latter which never took place, as Marchand had by then fled town, knowing that he had no chance of winning. The prize of 500 Thaler, a considerable sum, was never passed on to Bach, which must have annoyed him considerably.

One of the reasons why Bach would have so outshone his rival was his uncanny ability to absorb all the different musical styles of the time, and yet produce something unmistakably his own. Marchand excelled in elegant and fiery playing, but his compositions remained firmly in the French tradition. Bach was able to combine the grace and refinement of French dance music with concerto elements borrowed from the Italians, yet subjecting it all to the German predilection for polyphonic writing at which he was the supreme master. Nowhere is all this more beautifully demonstrated than in his six English Suites, written, it is thought, during his tenure at Weimar (1708–17). They are the first of three collections of keyboard suites, the others being the French Suites (begun in Cöthen, but probably finished in Leipzig towards 1725), and the Partitas (which he began publishing in Leipzig in 1726). As the French Suites are considerably easier to play and more readily accessible to the listener, it is tempting to think that they were composed first, but the opposite is true. By then the new ‘galant’ style was beginning to assert itself, and the language of the English Suites would have seemed old-fashioned to many.

The title English Suites is totally misleading. There is nothing at all ‘English’ in what Bach wrote. Although the autograph manuscript is lost, there are in existence several copies in various hands which give the title simply as Suites avec préludes. In one copy known to have been in the possession of Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, the remark ‘fait pour les Anglois’ is added to the title page of the first suite. Forkel describes them in his biography as: ‘Six great Suites, consisting of preludes, allemandes, courants, sarabandes, jigs &c. They are known by the name of the English Suites because the composer made them for an Englishman of rank’.

Who this Englishman was we shall probably never know, but the title has stuck for good. Following his usual practice of grouping six pieces together in a collection, Bach gives us a descending key pattern (A, a, g, F, e, d) which, if you sing it, also happens to be the opening of the chorale Jesu, meine Freude. In each of the suites, he follows the standard sequence of dance movements (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue) with pairs of ‘galanteries’ inserted between the last two (Bourrée, Gavotte, Passepied). What makes and really identifies each of the English Suites is their opening Prelude which, with the exception of the first one in A major, are pieces of tremendous scope and intensity. They also demand the virtuosity that made Bach famous and that he no doubt displayed to the unfortunate Marchand.

The English Suite No 1 in A major, BWV806 is the odd one out in the set, and totally unlike the other five. Perhaps the least played nowadays, it is very French in style and seems close to Couperin (whose Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin was published in 1713). It exists in an earlier version (BWV806a) with a shorter prelude, only one variant of the second Courante, and without the second Bourrée. The first eleven bars of the Prelude are taken from the first harpsichord suite by Charles Dieupart (1667?–c1740), a French composer who lived in London from the early 1700s. Bach had copied out all six of Dieupart’s suites, no doubt then being inspired to write his own. After the opening flourish, we settle into a pastorale in 12/8 (in Dieupart’s piece it was the concluding Gigue) that is very reminiscent of the A major Prelude of Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Nothing disturbs us unduly. The Allemande which follows is also gentle and calm, using arpeggiated figures and pedal points rather than the standard imitative entries. The texture is dense, but the key of A major demands a certain radiance.

Then comes a rather big dose of Courantes—two, in fact, and the second with two variations or doubles. Couperin often wrote series of Courantes in the same key, but it is unusual in Bach. It is not an easy dance to get a hold of, either as a player or as a listener—nor for a dancer, I imagine, as its rhythmic subtleties can be quite complicated. All of the courantes in Bach’s English Suites are of the French variety (the Italian corrente being another kettle of fish, and a much livelier dance), and this is often ignored by pianists who seem to find in them a bit of a romp. Nothing could be further from the true character of the dance. The four we have here are a lesson in ornamentation, especially the second Courante with its Italian-style flourishes in the first double, and the walking bass in the second.

The Sarabande of the A major suite provides the great moment of the entire work. Seventeen of the thirty-two bars contain the swirling motive of the first bar which then soars upwards, resting on the second beat (a rhythmic characteristic of the dance). The melody is more Italian than French with its long phrases and curves. Unlike the other sarabandes of the English Suites, this one is already highly embellished to start with, leaving little room for ‘improvement’ on the repeats.

To conclude we have two high-spirited Bourrées (the first in the major key making a feature of two-note slurs; the second in the minor which stays in the lower half of the keyboard—another thing which Couperin often did), and a Gigue which will be remembered by all those who have played it for the annoying trills in both hands. The piano marking at the end of each section is Bach’s own, showing that he preferred to end this piece with charm rather than bravura.

With the English Suite No 2 in A minor, BWV807 we enter another world. The angular, no-nonsense subject that opens the Prelude gives birth to a movement with concerto-like proportions, even though it begins like a two-part invention. The middle section, with its repeated-note motive in the lower register, gives us a chance to catch our breath, at least momentarily. The whole of the opening section is then repeated—something which will occur in all the remaining Preludes. The energy level is high, and I am reminded of a passage in Forkel’s biography that describes Bach’s own playing:

In the execution of his own pieces he generally took the time very brisk, but contrived, besides this briskness, to introduce so much variety in his performance that under his hand every piece was, as it were, like a discourse. When he wished to express strong emotions, he did not do it, as many do, by striking the keys with great force, but by melodical and harmonical figures, that is, by the internal resources of the art. In this he certainly felt very justly. How can it be the expression of violent passion when a person so beats on his instrument that, with all the hammering and rattling, you cannot hear any note distinctly, much less distinguish one from another?

After a lyrical Allemande in which the imitative entries are inverted after the first double bar, comes a Courante that is seamless and again unhurried. The dotted rhythms we find in the first suite give way to groups of four slurred quavers in both hands. The Sarabande is noble and eloquent, but not too slow. It is the first one in the set where Bach writes out ‘les agréments’—an ornamented version of the melody. It is not clear whether these should be played on the repeat of the individual sections, or following the complete dance as a true double. In this particular case I have opted for the former, as it seems an appropriate length for the material presented. The first Bourrée, for me, should not begin too loudly, otherwise the spell is broken too suddenly. On the repeat, the dynamic level can be increased. The second Bourrée is a musette in the major key, imitating the drone of a bagpipe. It is the only truly carefree moment in the whole suite. The final Gigue is a tour de force in tarentella style, with trills pushing it upward and forward. Not content with just repeating both sections, Bach adds an extra da capo, and we hear it all for a third time with an ever-increasing sense of drive and brilliance.

The Prelude of the English Suite No 3 in G minor, BWV808 is a perfect example of how Bach could construct a solo keyboard piece using a Vivaldi concerto grosso as a model. Ritornello passages imitating the full orchestra alternate with solo episodes that are lighter and more transparent. The first and third of these use similar material giving the movement a symmetrical construction. The crescendo of the first six bars is a built-in one with Bach piling up the parts (this becomes even more effective on the piano). The return to the repeat of the opening section is ingenious. There is no pause or clear re-commencement, but rather a bridge passage where the opening three notes begin to appear low down, moving upwards until they finally come to the right spot and we find ourselves in familiar territory. The swinging rhythm of the movement should be brought out, especially since in one of the earliest copies it was written in double measures (that is, with the stress only on every second bar, as though it were in 6/8 rather than 3/8).

The theme of the Allemande appears for the first time, rather unusually, in the bass. Taken up by the right hand, it is then swapped back and forth between the hands. After the double bar it is inverted, but then returns to its original form before the end. Bach flaunted his disregard for the rules and wrote a pair of consecutive octaves going into bar 11 that must have shocked his students! The Courante is rhythmically complex, with one passage in the first section sounding as though we are suddenly in 4/4 time rather than 3/2. The Sarabande is truly magical and must be one of his most inspired examples of this dance. The pedal point at the beginning lasts a full seven bars, and requires some repetition of the low G if it is to continue sounding. There are swift changes of key, and enharmonic progressions over a second pedal point that add to its beauty. As in the second suite, Bach gives us fully written-out ‘agréments’ which this time I like to play after a full, repeated version of the original dance. That way it somehow seems like a distant ‘echo’ of what has come before, yet even more wondrous and expressive.

The two Gavottes are well known—probably the best known movements in all the English suites. The first makes you think of Rameau’s famous Tambourin with the insistent, drum-like repeated Gs in the bass. The second is a musette in the major key which has a tender, almost lullaby-ish character. It is always preferable, I think, to play the pair of galanteries at the same speed, so this second gavotte prevents you from taking the first one too fast. The Gigue is in fact a three-part fugue of great difficulty which needs clarity, precision, and a sense of line to be effective. This is definitely one movement in which the constant ‘hammering and rattling’ that Forkel talks about can be most distressing!

After this it is a welcome relief to return to a major mode for the English Suite No 4 in F major, BWV809. It immediately establishes a positive, bright, assertive colour in the opening Prelude which is also very orchestral in character. The episode which begins in bar 20 is very similar to material presented by the harpsichord soloist in the opening movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No 5. Likewise, the theme that first appears in bar 28 is a direct quote from the B flat minor Prelude of the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (written much later), although in a totally different mood. The indication vitement was added to some copies, most likely to prevent the player from taking too slow a tempo rather than adopting a very quick one. The length of the final chord (only a crotchet) should be observed.

The sunny flavour of this suite continues in the Allemande with its groups of triplets that lighten the mood. Here the similarity is to the same dance in the Partita No 5 in G major. What a nice contrast it is to the other Allemandes of the set! There are, nevertheless, tinges of darkness towards the end of each section which add a bit of spice. After another French Courante which continues in the same happy mood, comes a Sarabande of pure delight. Compared to the ones we have already encountered, it looks bare on the page, and there are no variants left by Bach. It is up to the performer, therefore, to do his own, as it can’t possibly be left that way. The chromatic bass that moves upwards four bars from the end is especially beautiful. This Sarabande provides the suite with a moment of complete repose. The only pair of minuets in the English Suites now follows, and both are very melodic and full of the grace and good manners associated with this dance. The second is in D minor, contrasting nicely with the first. To end the work, Bach writes a Giga di caccia imitating hunting horns in the highest of spirits, bringing it all to a joyful conclusion.

In the last two suites Bach takes us to an even higher level of inspiration and mastery. For the Prelude of the English Suite No 5 in E minor, BWV810 he chooses a fugal construction with a strong, arresting subject that is characteristic for him when writing in that key. The countersubject uses the ‘turn’ motive that also appears frequently in his music, and one that can be incredibly difficult to play for long periods if the mind is at all tired. The episodes once more provide welcome contrast, and the bridge back to the da capo is totally seamless. At first, the Allemande can seem a bit severe, but in fact it is the most poignant of the six. The jarring dissonances in bar 15 take us by surprise on first hearing and need space to speak. It is lovely how Bach then clears the air in the next three bars with some simple major harmonies. The Courante is also the most original and interesting of the set. Its main feature is the accentuation of certain downbeats by effectively shortening the preceding note, giving it a graceful ‘lift’, and then adding an appoggiatura, ornament or arpeggiated chord on the first beat of the bar.

We might have expected an ornate, harmonically complex Sarabande in this suite, but instead Bach writes a simple, homophonic one in galant style. It is nevertheless immensely touching. The dots over the last four quavers in the first bar are to be found in some copies and can add just the right character if not over-emphasised. The part-writing is perfect throughout, and leads us to a moment of darkness in bars 13–14. It is quickly dispelled with an ascending sequence before the final descent. Now come a pair of Passepieds, a dance full of charm and executed with nimble movements. We must feel light on our feet in these! The first is written as a Rondeau with a returning refrain—a common occurrence in the music of Couperin, but not so frequent in Bach (although we immediately think of the Rondeau of the Partita No 2 in C minor). The second Passepied is played in the top half of the keyboard and once more is a musette with a pedal point. To stir things up again, Bach finishes with a Gigue fugue that has a remarkable, uncompromising subject in 3/8 time. It uses wide leaps and descending two-note chromatic figures to make its point; and of course after the double bar, it all gets inverted. The countersubjects, too, are all chromatically based. In writing about the English Suites, Forkel singled out this Gigue, along with the one in the final suite, as ‘perfect masterpieces of original harmony and melody’. Nobody but Bach could have written it.

It often happens that a work we have lived with for a long time remains a favourite, and this, for me, is the case with the English Suite No 6 in D minor, BWV811. Perhaps it is the powerful and imposing impact made by the Prelude, coupled with the wildness of the Gigue that makes this such a successful work in concert performance. There is also the poise and poetry of the Sarabande and the perfection of the Gavottes that is totally inspired. It is one of those works by Bach that gives the interpreter the greatest scope for emotional involvement. The Prelude is in two parts, in fact resembling a Prelude and Fugue. The opening unfolds over a pedal point to establish a firm grounding for what is to follow. It gives us no hint of the turbulence to come, except for the semiquavers in bars 27 and 28. Then the Allegro bursts forth, and sweeps us along in a kind of moto perpetuo. The invertible counterpoint already shows itself after only eleven bars. It is the longest of the Preludes, but never loses its sense of direction for a second. The Allemande is calm with a theme that is unusually long (two and a half bars). Some false relations (C naturals and C sharps occurring very close to each other) make the expression even more intense. The lyrical element is carried over into the Courante which has long phrases over a walking bass.

The Sarabande is in 3/2 time, denoting a slower tempo than usual. It is in two distinct parts: the initial statement which is slightly bare and can certainly be ornamented on the repeats, and then a fully written-out double which should be played afterwards. It is written in the style brisé made famous by the seventeenth-century lutenists (simply meaning that the arpeggiation is written out as an integral part of the line). Here a certain amount of rubato seems not only possible but desirable, especially in the second strain. It is a perfect example of how the harmonic content dictates the emotional response. The two Gavottes are linked melodically, with the theme of the second one being a direct quote of the first except in the major mode. The walking bass we encounter in the Courante is present again in Gavotte I, but changes register to the upper parts for part of the second section. Gavotte II is yet another musette, heard in the distance.

The set of English Suites is brought to a magnificent conclusion with the D minor Gigue—a masterpiece of ingenuity and virtuosity. The contrapuntal energy of the Prelude is now renewed in full force for a fugue that is completely demonic. It is written in 12/16 time, so should be brisk. The pedal-point effect of the Prelude is apparent in the fugue subject and in the long trills which must be played simultaneously (not an easy feat!). The quavers should be spiky and insistent, yet always follow the line. The syncopations caused by the ties are there for extra effect. This fugue is a perfect example of ‘mirror’ writing, which was taken a step further by Bach in his Art of Fugue. The first seven bars of the second section are, to take just one example, an exact inversion of the first seven bars of the beginning of the Gigue. We don’t need to know this to feel its tremendous power, but when we analyse what is there, it becomes all the more remarkable.

Angela Hewitt © 2003


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