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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Five Hours of Bach

  • Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
  • Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971
  • French Overture in B minor, BWV 831
  • 4 Duets, BWV 802-805
  • Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903
  • Partita for Keyboard #1 in B Flat Major, BWV 825
  • Partita for Keyboard #2 in C minor, BWV 826
  • Partita for Keyboard #3 in A minor, BWV 827
  • Partita for Keyboard #4 in D Major, BWV 828
  • Partita for Keyboard #5 in G Major, BWV 829
  • Partita for Keyboard #6 in E minor, BWV 830
Christophe Rousset, harpsichord
Recorded 1992-1995, Reissued May 2006
Decca 4757079 4CDs 76:44, 67:39, 76:19, 77:52
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Rating: Off the Charts

In the United States, Christophe Rousset's Decca recordings of Bach keyboard works have had a spotty history – here today, gone tomorrow. Fortunately, Decca has now repackaged these recordings into a four-disc set that sells for only $7.00 per disc. However, it's best not to assume that the set will indefinitely be on the U.S. market; in other words, snap it up before it's yanked.

Rousset's Decca/Bach recordings are essential for the Bach serious record collector and anyone else who prizes idiomatic interpretations of some of Bach's most compelling and glorious keyboard works. Rousset's style is generally informed by sharp contours, buoyant rhythms, brilliant phrasing, excellent detail of musical lines, poignant slow movements and very speedy and even wild fast movements. Overall, his interpretations crackle with energy. Another trait I love is that Rousset is often youthful and exuberant while at the same time expressing a full life's experience of regret and disappointment. In this regard, his performances remind me of excellent interpretations of Schumann's Kinderszenen where each note displays the maturity of adulthood as well the wonder of a child.

Disc 1 contains a very aggressive Goldberg Variations, and I love every minute of it. The performance is brash and never dawdles; it has great rhythmic bounce and a compelling musical flow. Although youthful exuberance is in abundance, there is a hardened element that creates a gripping aesthetic contrast. I think of this version as "Bach The Bounty Hunter". He busts through all obstacles and always quickly gets his man.

Rousset plays most of the variations with great rhythmic vitality and exhilaration, making this reviewer want to bounce off the walls. Although Rousset's tempos are significantly faster than the norm, he never allows them to diminish emotional content. In the Aria and those variations not conducive to an exhilarating presentation, Rousset is equally compelling. Listen to the pristine beauty and longing of the Aria, the strong contrast between remorse and salvation in Variation 9, the subtle negativity of Variation 11, the bitter/sweet nature of Variation 13, the pathos in Variation 15, the stunning rays of light in Variation 21, the spiritual side of Variation 24 and the bleak terrains of Variation 25 referred to as the "Black Pearl". Yes, Rousset connects on all cylinders, and I have no problem considering his Goldbergs one of the elite versions on the market.

Disc 2 covers four masterful Bach works, and Rousset applies the same magnificent qualities found in his Goldberg Variations. Each performance is in the top echelon with special notice going to the Italian Concerto's exquisite dialogue in the Andante and the visceral excitement of the Presto. Rousset delivers the most propulsive French Overture on record, his 1st Duet is the most austere and commanding I've ever heard, and his interpretation of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue revels in the work's macabre elements.

Discs 3 and 4 contain Bach's 6 Partitas for Keyboard, a rich vein of architectural and emotional variety. In these works I feel that Rousset places greater priority on structural clarity with some dampening of interest in visceral thrills (although there are still many instances of exhilaration). The advantages of clarity reveal that Rousset is both youthful/exuberant and experienced/melancholy in each note and chord he plays. I find the contrasts illuminating and riveting, the result being one of the most rewarding sets on either piano or harpsichord.

As for sound considerations, I am quite pleased that these Decca recordings are much less reverberant than Rousset's recent outings on the Ambroisie label. The Decca sound has plenty of body and depth, and it allows Rousset's sharp phrasing and pin-point articulation to grab hold of the listener.

Don's Conclusions: Except for those allergic to the harpsichord, the Rousset set is an indispensable part of the Bach keyboard enthusiast's music library. These are tremendously vibrant interpretations full of contrast and enlightening detail, so sit yourself down and listen to five wonderful hours of Bach.

Copyright © 2007, Don Satz