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Two Approaches To
Bach's English Suites

English Suites BWV 806- 811
Christopher Rousset
Ambroisie AMB 9942
Blandine Rannou
Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 030401 

Review by David Cates
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CD Number: See Above


  The English Suites (nothing English about them, but it is believed they were written for some unnamed Englishman) are great music. It is welcome to have on the market, after a relative scarcity, an abundance of interpretations by fine harpsichordists.

Congratulations Mr. Rousset, for demonstrating to us how fast they can be played. I find myself, frankly, tired out after listening to only one suite -- no, it didn't take that long, even. Rousset is a fine player, with numerous recordings to his credit that many listeners admire. I have generally found his previous solo recordings to be pretty straight; good documentations of the music but not ones that bear repeated listening nor reveal ideas. If you insist on taking your Bach fast and metronomic, you may like these performances, but that style of Bach performance is not for this listener. I fear it is no longer enough for a harpsichordist to play with impressive dexterity. That may be effective in live performance, but not in a recording; the recording is a different art form. I think we have come to a point where we can expect sometimes hidden musical ideas to be revealed through performance. I was disappointed here; I had been hoping for Rousset to rise to another level.

There seems in many movements no place to take a breath; a sense of phrase shape is often lacking. Instead, headlong momentum and razzle-dazzle are the prevailing (musical?) concepts here. The allemandes in particular are surprisingly and uncomfortably fast, as if perhaps the performer had that extra café au lait that in retrospect might not have been the best idea. In sum, I find the overall effect to be edgy; too unrelenting, frenzied at times (case in point, the a minor bourree I), lacking in nuance and leaving musical ideas unrealized in their potential. To be fair, Rousset's rendition of the gigue of the D minor suite is spot on, and selected movements are more successful as well. But after a while I found myself inadvertently labeling the movements after various espresso drinks, and few if any of them were decaffeinated. In conclusion, Rousset plays the notes, but sadly does not make music from them.

Rousset performs on an original 1642 Ruckers at the Chateau Neuchatel, in a resonant acoustic that may contribute to the feeling of the music as too busy. The sound tends to the bright and edgy side.

In great contrast, Blandine Rannou offers a warmer and more spacious interpretation of the English Suites. Mlle Rannou's playing is very French; it makes us think that this is how the music might have sounded in Louis Marchand's hands. She deserves credit for imagination, for savoring the allemandes, and especially for her exquisite treatments of the sarabandes. Rannou does shape her phrases, allowing the music to breathe; she takes interpretive chances, which a performer should. I quite admire her recording of Rameau's harpsichord works for those qualities. I feel, however, that the English Suites become in Ms Rannou's supple hands often too rounded, at times mannered. It may be facile to say "gallic and feminine," yet that's what comes to mind. I find her performance of the a minor suite's prelude quite fine; yet her interpretation of the g minor prelude loses, for me, its Vivaldi-esque character; it is too wet and legato, and the ornamentation serves no structural or musical purpose.

While Rannou's performances are much more pleasant listening than Rousset's, they too miss so many opportunities to give the right breathing and shape to phrases, and important harmonic and musical events pass by unnoticed -- most noticeably in the prelude and allemande of the A major suite. Some of her ornaments don't seem to fit or add to the music's motion. Her performance of the gigue in the G minor suite is too straightforward; she misses the opportunity to make the gigue subject rhythmically interesting by using the offbeat accents to give the impression of two lines though the music is written as only one. Instead of tension achieved through some syncopated stresses -- a sense of pulling up, lifting -- versus forward motion, we have just a straight reading of the written music. But when Rannou does grasp the essence of a movement, she does it well and with great musicality. She can stray into the territory of eccentricity, though.

Mlle Rannou records on a lovely instrument, made by Anthony Sidey in 1985 after a Ruckers-Hemsch. The recorded sound is pleasant but overly reverberant.

While both of these recordings are of interest, Edward Parmentier's version on Wildboar has immensely more to offer musically. For all of its interest and fascination, it can however at times seem aloof, a little chilly. A dose of warmth, and that would be the perfect recording.





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