The complexity of sources underlying Bach’s music has exercised performers and scholars for over two centuries. Even an apparently straightforward collection like the six French Suites, assembled for his wife Anna Magdalena in the early 1720s, show the hands of different copyists with versions sometimes growing out of Bach’s teaching relationship with his pupils. Mahan Esfahani’s extensive, often entertaining notes explain the decisions behind this new recording including variants and additions alongside all the familiar movements. A main beneficiary is the fourth suite in E flat that gains an improvisatory prelude, a second gavotte and a minuet. Esfahani also includes what he describes as three ‘Orphan Suites’, comprising works connected to Bach either by a single ascription, as in the G minor Suite, or via the copies of pupils, presumably based on their teacher’s work. Whatever their provenance, the music rarely disappoints.
All credit to Esfahani for this carefully prepared recording. While no amount of scholarly underpinning will save poor performing, there is much to enjoy in playing that displays poise and expressive nuance as well as virtuosity. Some may find Esfahani’s use of rubato excessive, for instance in the Allemande, Sarabande and first Gavotte of the fourth Suite, and occasionally the playing strays into over-exuberance, as in the infectious Gigue of the fifth Suite. The harpsichord used is big in size and sound, and while initially impressive, its over-resonant timbre in a generous recorded ambience becomes tiring. More enjoyable overall are the performances of the first three French Suites and two of the ‘Orphan Suites’ on a clavichord with a modest, but expressive dynamic range that admirably suits the delightful intimacy of these works.