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In admiration of Bach

Classical

J.S. Bach, “The French Suites BWV-812-817” (Harmonia Mundi, two discs).

The always-winning harpsichordist Richard Egarr has a persuasive theory about why Bach’s “French Suites” have been relatively unloved both on record and in live performance compared to so much other Bach keyboard music.

For one thing, he points out, there’s nothing really French about them.

“The six ‘French’ are no more French than the so-called ‘English’ suites or the six Partitas that form Clavierbung I for that matter.” Their miniature and intimate nature leads Egarr to the conclusion that they were “the products of Papa Bach’s educational life with his various family members. As a set they lack the structure and ‘planning’ that went into creating the ‘English’ shites and particularly the extraordinary blueprint of the Partitas.”

The music survives as copies by Anna Magadalena Bach, “various sons and students ... The familiar and gentle nature of so much of the music contained in the set would make a perfectly inspiring present for his nearest and dearest.”

Egarr plays them that way. To him they are Bach’s “Family Suites.” They’re offered with “greatest admiration for Bach’s inimitable genius.” When you understand Egarr’s notion of these suites as the epitome of family pedagogy for the deity among Western composers, you don’t much miss that sonic expressivity that can often be found in the work of pianists when they play this music. The harpsichord, then, would be their authentic voice. Of that, Egarr is nothing if not convincing, as great as so many piano versions are (Glenn Gould’s, for instance).

3 1/2 stars (out of four)

– Jeff Simon

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