BACH: The Partitas and French Suites – Richard Egarr – HM

by | Apr 1, 2017 | Classical CD Reviews

BACH: The Partitas – Richard Egarr – Harmonia Mundi 907593. CD 1: 75:39, CD 2 79:20 (3/24/17) *****:

BACH: The French Suites – Richard Egarr – Harmonia Mundi 907583, CD 1: 47:04, CD 2: 58:29 (5/27/16) ****1/2 :

(Richard Egarr; harpsichord)

Egarr continues his successful tour of the complete Bach solo repertory played on his fine Ruckers copy double-manual instrument.

In recent years, Richard Egarr has somehow managed to balance his responsibilities as musical director of the Academy of Ancient Music with his ambitious project of recording the entire solo harpsichord repertory of J.S. Bach. These recordings have appeared as collections of the “little” works such as the 2004 “per cembalo solo…” on Harmonia Mundi, but more recently as double-CDs of the major suites. Under review here are two major installments which nearly complete the journey.

Egarr has been loyal to his splendid instrument, a 1991 Joel Katzman copy of a 1638 Ruckers harpsichord. It is a massive double-register keyboard with a booming voice. It can rattle frightfully on some of the heavy ornamentation of a Bach Gigue, but it possesses an almost mystical side; the 8-ft single register has such a bell-like clarity, especially in the lyrical Sarabande, that the sound detaches entirely from mechanism. We feel as if we had sprouted wings (the plectra quill rather plastic) and were fluttering in the warm sky. It is almost an excess of pleasure. These moments occur more prominently in the French Suites, but recur frequently in the Airs and Sarabandes of both sets, coming as a mercy.

Most of our readers know these pieces on the piano. There is really no comparison; they exist as separate repertoires. The best of the piano interpretations (Hewitt, Schiff, Aldwell) willfully ignore the technical details of the alien plucked instrument and necessarily translate the nuances of the ornamentation into a new expressive idiom. (The very best example of this is probably the Scarlatti recordings on piano of Yevgeny Sudbin) However, for the harpsichord to compete with the piano, a lot of things must come together regarding the sound and ambience of the recording. Bach’s harmonic juggernaut can be exhausting on the ear, and this heaviness can be direly exasperated by a narrow sonic range or a metallic asperity. Thankfully, this recording succeeds brilliantly in this area. The Harmonia Mundi engineers are very familiar with this handsome instrument, having worked with it for over a decade. They have achieved a many-voiced and supple tone in a natural ambience. Listeners will feel like they have the best seat in the house.

As to the playing, we can say that Egarr stays in calm control in the stormiest passages and has a firm grasp of the melodic contours and subtle rubato of the lyrical. He doesn’t especially like to slow down. His great rival, Jory Vinikour takes the Sarabande of Partita I to 5:28, while Egarr hustles it home at 4:43, without undue bustle, but still without the kind of hypnotism of the former.  In fact, Vinikour newly issued excellent recordings of these Partitas, a three CD compilation, offer an excellent point of comparison.

Both sets of these pinnacle recordings of the keyboard literature have many rewards. Egarr’s instrument narrowly edges out Vinikour’s elegant double-manual Thomas and Barbara Wolf, or perhaps it is the positioning of the microphoness. In any case, no other recordings of the Partitas that I have heard approach the beauty of these for sound. Jory Vinikour demonstrates a velocity on the ornamentation and in general which seems to make for a lighter touch. Egarr, though, has exemplary clarity of line and his deliberations make for an experience of comprehension, no small thing in music of this depth and abstraction.

Between the two collections of Suites there is little difference in performance. Very sensitive ears might detect the use of the A=399 tuning in the partitas rather than the standard 415. However, in all other regards, the sound and playing is uniformly excellent. Egarr, in his incisive notes to the Partitas, endorses the standard view that they are substantially grander in conception than the French Suites, which are collections of pedagogical materials cobbled together in no special order and without much in the way of “blueprint.” Well known for his insightful lectures about Bach during his recitals, he has little to say in his notes about the latter except to mention that he takes all the repeats.

In the Partitas, numerology, internal references to key symbolism, and codes abound. These don’t necessarily belong to the experience of listening, but knowing about them puts us on our toes; we listen half expecting to get a glimpse of the great Pythagorean Order but never become wiser than a dog listening in at the dinner table. In any case, the Partitas do seem to breathe more alpine air. There are moments of unbearable harmonic weight such as in the final cadence of the Praeludium C minor Partita. These ornery dominant chords clash dissonantly on the harpsichord but they achieve their purpose, a huge restrained tension that then breaks free tin the subsequent ¾ time joyous romp. The 11:20 Allemande of Partita IV marks a highlight of the set. I might recommend taking in separately as the rarest Bachian delectation, perhaps a pleasure on the order of the aria of the Goldberg, with the same affecting and poignant lyricism floating over the strong counterpoint.

There is a feeling of upward journey in the Partitas as we move through the Suites from the “easy” B-Flat Partita, featured in countless student recitals, to the immense Partita VI. Egarr dilates on the deep science of this piece in his notes, explaining the Christological significance of the design. Again, it is felt but not understood. Darkness and shadow prevail and the three-part fugue is fraught with grief. In the end, we stand in sober awe of this musical vision of the world.

While the French Suites are lighter and simpler throughout, it is to these that I will more often turn. When the gloom closes and prospects dim, it is a Sarabande that I need to balance out the humours. Our readers will not go wrong in acquiring either set, or any of Mr Egarr’s other outstanding recordings on Harmonia Mundi (not to be forgotten is his outstanding complete Louis Couperin).

All in all, we look forward to the completion of this super-ambitious project which will yield mountain-top view of Bach’s genius at the keyboard. Thanks to the good folks at Harmonia Mundi for championing this first-rate artist and for their excellency in sound and packaging.

TrackList: Partitas:  1-6 Partita in B flat major; 7-12 Partita II in C minor; 13-19 Partita IV in D major
Disc two: 1-8 Partita III in A minor; 9-15 Partita V; 16-22 Partita VI

TrackList: French Suites: 1-5 Suite I in D minor; 6-11 Suite II in C minor; 12-17 Suite III in B minor;
Disc two: 1-7 Suite IV; 8-14 Suite V in G major; 15-22 Suite VI in E major; 23  Minuet 2, BWV 813; 24-26 Courante variants from BWV 813

—Fritz Balwit


Related Reviews