CD Review: Bach’s French Suites by Peter Watchorn

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Bach revised his French Suites many times. Unlike Bach’s Partitas, which were published and therefore frozen in their state at the time of publication, Bach wrote the French Suites as “teaching” suites, with many variants. Some early versions appear in the 1722 Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, which contains two full suites (BWV 815 and 816) together with parts of the first two suites. Peter Watchorn discusses how Bach used these suites for teaching in his interesting liner notes that are in the form of an imaginary interview with Johann Sebastian Bach.

The first thing that strikes the listener of this set is the clear, rich sound of the harpsichord, a Zuckerman copy of a Christian Vater instrument from 1738. Not only does this harpsichord offer an extremely balanced sound from the low end to the treble, but the recording itself enhances the musicality of the instrument. It sounds warm and full, without the sometimes harsh high end that can be tiring to listen to. (Also, it is worth noting that Watchorn uses Bradley Lehman’s tuning scheme, described here.)

Watchhorn’s performances here are delightful. His playing can range from dainty to powerful according to the needs of each specific movement. He takes full advantage of the wide range of sounds his harpsichord can express, offering tasteful ornamentation and subtle accents when desirable.

One than that Watchorn does here that sets this recording apart from others is the addition of preludes to the suites that do not contain any. He has restored the prelude to the 4th suite, and he plays other preludes before the suites that do not contain any. His reasoning, laid out in the liner notes, is in part due to the fact that Bach and his sons would “improvise” preludes when playing these suites. To this end, he uses preludes from a variety of sources: the Well-Tempered Clavier, other uncollected preludes, and even BWV 999, a prelude that Bach wrote for the lute, and which is a well-known piece.

I am very familiar with the French Suites, having long appreciated these beautiful works. Adding preludes to them is interesting, but when one has listened to them without these preludes for so long, it can be jarring to hear them with what seem like “intruders,” especially those preludes that are familiar from the Well-Tempered Clavier, or the prelude for lute. I admire the research that has gone into this choice, but I will choose to listen to the French Suites without these additional movements. It is like Bach’s Art of Fugue. For a long time, it was thought that the unfinished fugue was the final part of the work; it certainly sounds like a summation of the rest of the fugues, and its ending in suspension is a fitting ending for the entire work. But musicologists have shown us that its position in the work was much earlier. Nevertheless, I simply cannot listen to it in its proper position.

This set also contains the twenty “Little Preludes,” other didactic works from the Clavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Among these works, Watchorn “completed” the prelude BWV 932, which existed as a fragment. I find the Little Preludes interesting, but they certainly don’t stand up to the French Suites. These are not works I return to often, though Watchorn’s recordings of them are up to the same standards as the French Suites.

To sum up, this is a fine recording of the French Suites, with the odd aspect of the additional preludes. It is up to the listener to decide if he or she wishes to hear the suites in this manner. But given the quality of the performances and especially the excellent recording, this set is among the best harpsichord recordings of these works.

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