BACH: The Complete English Suites, BWV 806-811 – Edith Picht-Axenfeld, harpsichord – Camerata CMCD-151178, (2 CDs) 66:44; 70:31 [Distr. By Albany] ****:
Edith Picht-Axenfeld (1914-2001) made a reputation at the 1937 Chopin Competition, placing sixth. A pupil of both Rudolf Serkin and Albert Schweitzer, Picht-Axenfeld mastered piano, harpsichord, and organ, accompanying many prestigious artists like Henryk Szeryng, Aurele Nicolet, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Heinz Holliger, and Pina Carmirelli. She and pianist Carl Seemann often played duo-recitals. The performances inscribed here (1979) were made (in Osaka, Japan) on a 1976 William Dowd instrument after an original by Francois Etienne Blanchet, 1720. Bach never termed his suites “English” as such; he seems to have taken his model from Dieupart, a French musician active in London.
Bach’s keyboard suites, composed c. 1717-1723, each comprise six works; however, the English suites balance major and minor tonalities in a way that the so-called French suites do not: here, two major and four minor keys, the arrangement of which forms A-A-G-F-E-D, or the opening of the chorale Jesu meine Freunde. Four standard dance movements are preceded by a Prelude/Allemande and perhaps one or more additional, paired dances, a Courante, a Double, a Gavotte, or a Passepied. For the suites after the first, the Preludes become quite substantial, often in concerto or fugal style, emotionally overpowering the ensuing dance movements, excepting the Sarabandes. The obvious case remains the opening of Suite No. 6, in which a spacious arpeggio prelude bursts into a bravura fugue of epic proportions. The dual manuals of the harpsichord allow Picht-Axenfeld to relish in the concerted sonorities denied the modern piano, despite the graduated dynamics permitted the latter instrument. For my taste, the A Minor Suite enjoys an immediacy of sound and measured temper that quite justifies the harpsichord medium as a means of expression. After Glenn Gould’s demonic execution of the Bourree I/II, I may have held reservations about Picht-Axenfeld’s capability to sell me on their staggering voice lines and effusive wit. But even in her slightly more marcato tempo manages to delight us with Bach’s expansive means and competing sonorities.
The G Minor Suite stands at the group’s center and provides an energetic and vital core to the six pieces, which generally prove more virile and extroverted than the French Suites, whose intimacy and introspection makes them perennially attractive. The various Gigues of the English Suites rarify a sailor’s tune and lift it to a unfettered boldness of expression. Picht-Axenfeld makes sparks fly in her rendition of the G Minor Suite, the independent lines clear and fluidly merged at every step. She reminds us that the Sarabande nods to Spain for its essential character, accented on the second beat; in Bach’s case, he writes out the simple ornament deliberately, allowing the performer to embellish further according to his whim and abilities. After the stern method of the Sarabande, the succeeding Gavotte I/II pulsate within a diaphanous aether. The final Gigue courses along in the manner of an explosive Invention, aggressive and disdainful of technical obstacles.
The F Major No. 4 confirms the essentially happy and upbeat nature of the English Suites, the fioritura of the opening Prelude rife with ornaments and toccata-like passages; certainly, the tempestuous filigree sounds as if it were meant for a concerto. The harpsichord appears to be both strummed and plucked in the ensuing Allemande, the voices separating and conjoining at selected intervals, most stately. The transparent textures of the latter dances, Menuet I/II and Gigue, retain their energetically brilliant character, despite the fact that Bach’s “dances” are pure music, not intended for social eurhythmics.
The scale of the last two suites gains in expansiveness and depth of purpose. The E Minor’s Prelude bears a rich and austere solemnity, especially in the bass line. The fecundity of contrapuntal thinking does not belie the dance-impulse, although the affect often passes into the realm of the Lutheran chorale. Many would claim the Fifth Suite as possessing the widest emotional breadth of any of the set. Even in spite of the harpsichord’s dynamic limits, Picht-Axenfelt imparts something like warmth into the E Minor Allemande, a piece much in the style of the French clavecinists. The D Minor Prelude goes even further, providing us a massive Prelude that Picht-Axenfelt holds together by her smooth transition of contrasting tempos.
If one must quibble with the traversal by Picht-Axenfelt, it might lie in her staid, single-minded approach; yet no lethargy or sluggishness intrudes into her noble vision, and her articulation of ornaments and continuity of line remains flawless. The set makes a striking testament to a musician of singular character.
Some “first time” Dance Music releases by Sevitzky and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra