Release Date: 1986
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Producers: Hanno Rinke / Karl-August Naegler
Recording place: Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds
Total playing time: CD [56:16]
Copyright: © 1986 Deutsche Grammophon
— J. S. BACH · ENGLISH SUITES
Interpreters of Bach in our day meet with problems apart from those of establishing the authentic musical text and presenting it in a stylistically irreproachable manner. In the case of a number of his compositions it is difficult to discover the significance of the title which he gave a work, or to make it comprehensible to modern listeners.
It was certainly not Bach who gave the six Suites with the BWV numbers 812–17 the title “French”. Nor is this descriptive term clearly justified by the structure of each of these six collections of dances, but there is a noticeable contrast to the so-called “English” Suites (BWV 806–11): an Allemande begins each of the French Suites yet is pre-ceded by a Prelude in all the English Suites. These Preludes – extensive and virtuosic – are capable of creating a sense of irresistible excitement in the listener, and this is certainly the case here in the performances by Ivo Pogorelich of the English Suites. What is, however, intrinsically “English” in these Preludes, and what – the very question seems absurd – is “English” in the Allemandes, Courantes, Gavottes, Bourrees and Gigues which follow? The second Gavotte of the Suite in G minor bears the more detailed title “ou la Musette”, a description which musicologists treat with some reserve because in order to satisfy English taste Bach would have been expected to use the expression “ou la cornemuse”. As the bagpipe is not, however, referred to at all in any of the English Suites, players and listeners have to look elsewhere for an explanation of this nomenclature, and there are two facts which appear to be helpful in this respect. Stylistically there are points of contact with a harpsichord suite in A major by George Frideric Handel; its appearance in 1720 – two years before Bach completed his suites at Cöthen – had aroused interest not only in England but also on the continent. The name of Charles Dieu-part is also sometimes mentioned in connection with the solution of the problems posed by Bach’s suites. Similarities in construction, and also at times between themes, can be shown to exist between these works of Bach and a piece by Dieu-part, a French-born composer who was living in London. Relationships of this kind are, however, no rarity in the musical life of the 18th century, when views on parodying, even to the point of plagiarism, and the fresh use of another composer’s ideas, were quite different – and above all less censorious – than those held today.
During his years as a composer of secular music at Cöthen Bach combined abstract polyphonic writing with the use of strong rhythms rooted in popular music, and embellished his chosen melodic material with exuberant ornamentation. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s description of his father’s playing gives a clue to the nature of such music: the self-willed son praised Bach’s artistry at a keyboard instrument as “elegant, delicate and agreeable” – and he probably omitted to mention his father’s unobtrusive dexterity – today we would call it virtuosity – only because it was taken for granted. This is no less true of Ivo Pogorelich when with unbounded élan he executes the semiquaver (16th-note) patterns which make up the 164 bars of the Prelude in the Suite in A minor in an “elegant, delicate and agreeable” manner, but at the same time with that powerful sense of forward motion which is a feature of many of Bach’s instrumental pieces — and which is ignored only by performers who are unable to overcome the technical problems which these pieces present. The élan of sheer motor energy is a valid aspect of musical expression. As a contrast to the courtly dignity of the Sarabandes and to the restrained Allemandes, it has an important dramaturgical function in all six English Suites.
There remains the question of how the printed musical text is to be interpreted in detail – without the reassuring safety-net of a continuous performing tradition. Various manuscript copies made by pupils of Johann Sebastian Bach demonstrate the fact that every interpreter was allowed, and even expected, to decorate the music in accordance with his own taste, so that every performance included a creative element. Anyone who censures a pianist of our day for stamping his own personality on period music should bear in mind the latitude which was formerly allowed to performers. The choice of instrument – in this case a modern concert grand piano – belongs, as do all improvisatory additions to the musical text, to the controversial sphere of each individual’s search for artistic truth.”
© Peter Cone / Deutsche Grammophon