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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

The English Suites

  • English Suite #1 in A Major, BWV 806
  • English Suite #2 in A minor, BWV 807
  • English Suite #3 in G minor, BWV 808
  • English Suite #4 in F Major, BWV 809
  • English Suite #5 in E minor, BWV 810
  • English Suite #6 in D minor, BWV 811
Angela Hewitt, piano
Hyperion CDA67451/2 145m DDD
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Also released on Hybrid SACD: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic ]

Summary for the Busy Executive: A feather on the breath of God.

I can remember the first two pieces of classical music I ever heard: Debussy's Second Arabesque and Bach's English Suite #2. My mother had trained as a concert pianist and my father referred to these two as her million-dollar pieces. I loved both scores and as an adorable toddler used to pester her for them, partly so I could snuggle up to her on the piano bench. At the time, I made no distinctions among various musical genres. I listened happily to Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante, Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting, Louis Armstrong, Mary Martin, the usual 40s and 50s pop dreck (Mitch Miller ruined my childhood!), Tchaikovsky (filtered through Fred Waring), Golden children's records, old 78s of George M. Cohan songs, "Donkey Serenade," and so on – whatever, really, was in the house.

Obviously, the English Suites mean something to me that they probably don't to anyone else. I'll say right now that I've yet to encounter my ideal recording of this set. With 37 individual movements to consider, I doubt I ever will.

My first recording came from the Cleveland Public Library and the French pianist Reine Gianoli, a pupil of Cortot. Her Mozart (including the complete piano sonatas), but not her Bach, is currently available in the U.S. I liked her Bach, since it corresponded to the way my mother played. I haven't heard Gianoli's English Suites in decades, and only that hazy impression remains with me. I don't care for Gould's recording. Previously, I preferred Andras Schiff on London (now available as an ArkivMusic CD), full of animal spirits. However, he tired me out with an insistently staccato touch. Hewitt plays with a wider range of color and often-miraculous phrasing.

Compared to the French Suites, the six English Suites contain more complex music. They also predate the French Suites, in which Bach felt the influence of the newer and simpler galante style. Both, course, are suites of dances. The chief difference lies in Bach's inclusion of a prelude which opens each of the English Suites. Incidentally, nobody's quite sure why Bach called them "English." Some speculate he wrote them for some English nobleman, but that seems merely the least weak conjecture among the bunch. Each suite follows the same general plan: prelude (almost always virtuosic and most similar to a concerto grosso movement), allemande, courante, sarabande, a twosome of some other dance (bourée, menuet, gavotte or passepied), and a concluding gigue. The dances are all in binary form – that is, they fall into to parts, A and B, each repeated, so that you wind up with AABB. Bach's powers of invention run pretty near full-bore in these babies. Bach may indulge in extra-musical fun as well. For example, Hewitt notes that the keys of all the suites, set out in order – A a g F e d – play the opening line to "Jesu, meine Freude" (Jesus, my joy), a favorite chorale of Bach's. Joy and energy stamp this set.

The first suite strikes me as the slightest of the six, but – what the hey? – it still comes from the pen of perhaps the greatest musical mind ever. The impression of lightness comes from the prelude, less contrapuntally busy than the others. Hewitt finds in it the occasion to create a gentle pastorale, continuing in the allemande. The most remarkable part of the suite consists of a veritable onslaught of courantes. The courante is a triple-time dance that steps out two different ways: three groups of 2 beats, or two groups of 3. In Bach especially, the rhythm subtly shifts so that often you find yourself lost within a measure. Hewitt contends that the French courante differs from the Italian corrente. It moves more slowly. Nevertheless, it's not a slow dance. In any case, where other pianists dash off these two movements in around five minutes, Hewitt clocks in at over nine, but not due solely to the tempo. The second courante takes up the time. After a full statement (with repeats) of the dance, Hewitt presents the courante with the exquisite embroidery of Bach's ornaments. The sarabande, like most of its siblings in these suites, contains some of the most harmonically complex and deeply-felt music of the set. The bourées fly by, the first blithely, the second like an angry wasp. A gigue featuring trills in each hand concludes the suite.

Again, I have a special and long acquaintance with the second suite. It probably constitutes my first exposure to highly-contrapuntal music. When I heard the clarion opening, it seemed to me that time had become a wind-up car which some invisible hand jerked backwards and released to start again – a vivid impression then, and one that has stayed with me. Hewitt in general takes an airy approach to the suites, even whimsical at times, that mostly serves her very well. Not here. Her lightness of touch not only brings a false character to this music, I sense that her slightly speedy tempo causes her to overemphasize the top line in the right hand almost all the time. I don't get enough of the imitation in the left hand, let alone its genuine themes (like the upward octave leap and the offbeat scalar fall). The prelude becomes superficial, a trait I have never before associated with her playing. The allemande rights the performance. Many pianists can't wait to get through it. Without slogging through, Hewitt creates an extremely sensitive dialogue between the outer parts. Slight hesitations on specific notes deepen the conversation, without crossing over to hokum. The courante, as Hewitt writes, has even greater rhythmic complexity than usual, at one point seeming to abandon triple time for straight 4/4. The sarabande may be my favorite of its type in the set, perhaps due to its minor key. It breaks my heart every time I hear it. Hewitt's emotional simplicity and directness, spurning the temptation to over-inflate, strikes deep. She takes it faster than most, but rather than looking shallow in comparison, she makes other pianists come off as a bit pretentious. The two bourées – the first quick and full of intrigue, the second joyous and rustic (and in the bright key of A major) – lead to the final gigue, which has always struck me as a triple-time rewrite of the prelude, especially in its fanfare main idea and its syncopated subthemes. It's a crazy ride that seems to braid its two main lines together. Your ears may feel pulled in two different directions or your eyes may cross.

Many writers have pointed out that the prelude of the third suite is really a concerto grosso in disguise, with clearly distinct concertato and ripieno sections. It opens with the note-by-note buildup of a full g-minor chord by successive imitative entries. This also creates a crescendo as more and more notes sound. However, one marks the danger of a rather thick texture. Many pianists turn the piece to mud. Hewitt's in her element, however. She keeps things light by not shooting the works right away. She distinguishes between the "orchestra" and the "soloist" not merely by dynamic, but by subtly-different colors. The mass sounds like strings; the solo like a harpsichord. The balance among all the voices is perfect. The important line at any particular time always takes precedence without obliterating the secondary parts. She shapes an elegant movement. I particularly enjoyed her transition to the recap. The recap itself enters at a higher dynamic than its initial statement, thus showing off Hewitt's architectural smarts. Furthermore, even at the higher dynamic, the texture remains free of murk. In the allemande, Bach begins the main idea in the left hand, rather than the right, but Hewitt doesn't bring this out enough. In the second part of the dance, he flips the subject upside-down. Hewitt moves the courante along with a strong, impulsive line, full of chioscuro and, again, gradients of color. Once again, Hewitt's sarabande stands out as a highlight of the set. She actually repeats the entire thing twice – the second time with Bach's elaborations. The sarabande is a rather slow dance anyway and can easily get to be too much of a good thing. Hewitt invests her reading with elegant melancholy and keeps her grip on a listener's attention. Her ornaments sound made-up on the spot, as if she's closely involved with the implications of Bach's twists. The following pair of gavotte and musette (derived from the drones of country music; a pedal note sounds throughout, in this case, G) provides a light break before the fugal gigue finale. The great thing about Bach's fugues isn't that they're fugues, but that they're exciting music. The music so cuts loose, you can easily forget that you're dancing within such a defined space.

The fourth suite trades in irresistible delight. I spent a year trying to learn to play it. I got the simpler movements but passages in the prelude and in the gigue eluded me. In college, my music-school friends told me of an incident in their orchestration class. The professor had given them the job of scoring a piano piece. Three class members turned up with movements from this suite, including one of my buddies, who had taken on the gigue.

The prelude strikes me as Bach in one of his Italian-concerto virtuoso moods, although, in contrast to the third suite, the textures are not particularly concerto-like. The first part consists of two main ideas: an ascending line of sixteenths and a "tan-ta-ra" rhythm, both part of the first theme. Entrances are, for the most part, imitative. Of the two, the sixteenths assume the greater importance, since their pulse courses through the entire movement. The argument is a marvel of ease and ingenuity as the line of sixteenths weaves itself into varying configurations and the "tan-ta-ra" runs against it. Essentially, the main theme folds in on itself throughout the course of the first part. Part two also takes two ideas: the first a "trick of the ear," three parts magically appearing from two; the second again a rhythm, "dum-da-da-dum." Bach comes up with one amazing variant after another of these two essentially simple ideas, out-of-the-way modulations, inversions, and so on. The allemande, like that of the first suite, sings gently, infused with graceful triplets. For the main matter of the second part, Bach turns that of the first on its head. The courante moves in a sprightly way and probably lies closest to the real-life dance of any of the other courantes in the set. The sarabande is also, appropriately light, although it too has elements of inversion between its first and second parts. Hewitt refers to it as "bare," since Bach's own ornaments are minimal. She adds some of her own, but with great taste. Two minuets move gracefully along, with a great deal less heaviness than those of Haydn and Mozart. The gigue evokes the hunt, with blood-racing horn calls and view-halloos. Again, the second part inverts the material of the first.

Hewitt contends that in the last two suites, Bach has upped his game. As powerful as certain movements in the fifth suite are (notably the first and the last), I don't find it any more wonderful than, say, two through four, which are themselves pretty wonderful. It opens with a monumental fugal prelude in one of Bach's favorite "dark" keys, e minor. Hewitt takes it in one huge breath – a headlong rush, with voices in perfect balance and a line occasionally goosed by a turn consisting of two thirty-seconds. After a somewhat forlorn allemande and a courante, we come to the sarabande, a movement of grave beauty achieved without a wasted note. A pair of passepieds (essentially, quick minuets) flit by like butterflies – the first, a rondeau; the second, another musette. In the gigue, another fugue, Bach not only puts a rather recalcitrant subject through impeccable contrapuntal treatment, he once again inverts the subject for the material of the second half.

On the other hand, as good as the previous five suites are, the sixth shows Bach shifting to a higher gear. Themes are generally more complex, structures "weightier." The opening movement announces the suite's greater ambitions by assuming the form of prelude and fugue, another gigue. The prelude, slow and somber, explodes into a manic gigue. Hewitt rides the lightning. She's not all zeal, however. She retains superb control over phrase shape, touch, balance, and dynamics. She swings. The allemande and especially the courante are lyrical statements but differ from their sibs in that they take side trips to harmonic Nova Zembla. The sarabande, the longest in the set, also digs the deepest emotionally. It reminds me of a Dowland fantasia. Two gavottes follow, the second a major-mode version of the first. In the first, Bach injects more counterpoint than in the previous gallantries. The theme shows up in the right hand, left hand, and somewhere in the middle.

For the big finish for the entire set, Bach again gives us a fugal gigue. Hewitt calls the fugue "demonic," and I can't do any better. Bach plays games with the tactus, the beat that determines measures and phrases. At certain points, the music seems to "phase," to lose its rhythmic tether within the measure. It takes a magister magistrorum to even conceive of something like this, let alone write it out and bring it off.

I'd certainly call this set the best I've heard, but I don't know the versions by van Asperen or Levin, both of which look intriguing. To beat Hewitt, however, they'd have to jump the moon. The set includes a photo of Hewitt looking friendly, brainy, and slightly punk, as well as justifiably proud. She should be.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.