The fact is, nobody is quite sure how or why these keyboard pieces got the nickname “English.” Bach probably wrote them early on in his career, maybe around 1715-1723, and they’re among the composer’s earliest keyboard suites. Bach didn’t even call them the “English Suites,” and they didn’t acquire the name until the nineteenth century when one of Bach’s biographers, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, declared that Bach had written them for an English nobleman. However, Forkel never backed up his claim, so who knows. The funny thing is that these suites have more in common with French suites of the period than English, particularly in their preludes.
Anyway, the German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote his six keyboard suites, BWV 806–811, for harpsichord, which Richard Egarr plays on this splendid two-disc set from Harmonia Mundi. Egarr has been the conductor of the Academy of Ancient Music for most of the past decade, but he also continues making solo recordings like this one.
If you've heard any of Egarr’s past work, whether conducting, playing solo, or in accompaniment, you know he favors lively rhythms and expressive phrasing. There is nothing genteel, sedate, or old fashioned about his Bach. The Suites bounce along with maximum zest, yet they never betray their essentially aristocratic origins. Egarr shows great imagination in his interpretations, which in the hands of a few other musicians I’ve heard can seem a lot alike.
Each suite begins with a substantial prelude (becoming longer and more complex as the suites go on), followed by six or seven dance movements--allemandes, courantes, gavottes, gigues, minuets, passepieds, and bourrees. While the melodies pour forth graciously from all the suites, it’s the final three I favor most for their smoother, more-flowing lines. And it’s No. 5 in E minor I like best of all for its noble heart and No. 6 in D minor for its sheer grandness and drama.
Most of all, though, it’s Egarr’s spirited presentations that make it all come alive. The performances and recording sparkle.
A number of years ago, it was 1978 to be exact, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi released one of the best-sounding harpsichord albums I had ever heard, Bach’s Goldberg Variations with Gustav Leonhardt. Since then, the album has been my standard of comparison for other harpsichord recordings. Richard Egarr recorded this Bach program in 2011 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, and it holds up pretty well next to Leonhardt’s disc. Both recordings have a reach-out-and-touch-it quality, although the older Leonhardt recording sounds a tad richer, perhaps because of the miking and engineering involved, perhaps just because of the nature of the different harpsichords used. In any case, the sound of Egarr’s disc is vibrant and clear, miked at an ideal distance for realistic listening.
However, be aware that a harpsichord is a fairly bright instrument compared to the mellowness of a modern piano. So, yes, the instrument can appear little zingy. Frankly, when played too loudly, the sound got on my nerves. But, then, that’s just me; I’ve never cared overmuch for solo harpsichord playing, period. Heard at a normal, natural playback level for the instrument, though, Egarr’s harpsichord sounds quite lifelike, with a glowing high end and plenty of snap in its transient response.
In the booklet insert Egarr writes an informative little essay on the Suites, and the folks at Harmonia Mundi provide the jewel case with a light-cardboard slipcover.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: