The title of these four suites is in some confusion, with it often being referred to as overtures. They represent the French tradition, with the short individual movements reflecting the high esteem in which dance was held in the court of Louis XIV and in much of Europe in the period just before Bach wrote these somewhat old-fashioned works. Most of his chamber works were in the Italian tradition of the concerto form, or a Germanic musical mix of the two. Interestingly, Bach never intended these four suites to be grouped together as a set; there is no autograph or published set of the four.
Following the opening overture, the suites’ movements include Rondeaus, Bourrées, Menuets, Gavottes, Sarabandes, etc. The Second Suite in B minor differs from the other three in having more of a concertante conception – in fact one could really call it a concerto for flute and strings. The First Suite in C Major includes oboes and bassoons with strings and harpsichord, while the Third and Fourth are both in D Major and make use of a larger orchestral force, including even tympani. Since they are in the same key and have a richer overall sound many of the disc collections of the Four Suite make them the bookends, with the Suites 1 & 2 in the center.
Speaking of layout on the discs, the BIS entry – recorded in 2005 in Japan – differs from the two competing SACD versions of the Four Suites by spreading them out over two discs, whereas the others fit on single SACDs. The 99-minute length indicates that all the repeats must be taken, because in spot-checking comparisons the tempi in some of the sections seemed even faster in the Japanese recording than the Telarc version with Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque. The Overture IV (Suite in D Major) is relegated to the second disc by itself.
The Bach Collegium Japan was founded in 1990 by Masaaki Suzuki, who began his studies in a Japanese early music group and later studied in Amsterdam with Ton Koopman and others. He is well known for his acclaimed series of Bach Cantata discs on BIS, and is now recording Bach’s complete works for the harpsichord.
I didn’t have at hand the third SACD version, by I Barocchisti and Diego Fasolis on Arts Music, but found the BIS and Telarc entries similar in many ways. Both chamber ensembles employ period instruments and current baroque performance practices. The surround display is similar on both, with the Japanese group a bit more distant but all instruments very clearly placed spatially across the soundstage. However, I find just a bit more spirit and enthusiasm in the Pearlman Telarc recording. Perhaps the Japanese are trying a bit more studiously to observe all the proper interpretive rules and lose some spontaneity in the process. If you don’t have any version of the Suites – standard or hi-res – in your collection, you should consider adding one of these. After the Brandenburg Concertos I find them the most exciting chamber music of Bach.
– John Sunier