BACH: The French Suites, BWV 812-817; Allemande and Menuet from Suite in E-flat, BWV 819a; Menuet and Sarabande from Suite in a, BWV 818a – Colin Tilney, clavichord – Music & Arts CD-1268, [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The French Suites are usually considered the poor cousin among Bach’s keyboard works. Composed in 1722, they predate the English Suites (usually considered the more expansive and bolder music) and fall about four years behind the Partitas and the few other works that constitute the first book of the Clavierübung. Most of them are found in the first two notebooks for Anna Magdalena, and were not finished until the move to Leipzig. They represent a retreat to some extent from the heavy contrapuntal activity of the English Suites and show an advancement of the idea of sparser counterpoint, expansive and simple melodic lines, and a nearly homophonic approach to music in some instances. Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, called them, somewhat pejoratively, the “little suites”.
But they are intensely French in their dance models, and show Bach a master of the dance forms of his day, wherever they came from. These pieces also give great opportunity for personal expression of a high order, and a new definition of keyboard intimacy.
Colin Tilney’s expressive readings are completely first-rate. Whether or not Bach’s favorite keyboard instrument was the clavichord will remain a source of debate, but its use in these suites is perfect, Tilney’s little five-octave 1895 instrument a marvel of clarity and subtlety. The short resonance period really does add to the clarity of the counterpoint, unlike what you would hear on a harpsichord. M&A gives him perfectly judged sound as well. Warning: this album is recorded at a very low level so you will have to turn the volume up in order to hear it properly. But do so slowly—the clavichord is a quiet instrument, and if you boost it too high you will miss the effect—and hence the whole point—of this recording. [Having played the clavichord, I can attest that the only person really able to hear it properly in live performance is the person playing it…Ed.]