Bach: English Suites 1, 3 & 5 (CD review)

Piotr Anderszewski, piano. Warner Classics 0825646219391.

Somewhere around 1715-1723, early in his career, Bach wrote six keyboard suites, which he would have played on the harpsichord. Nobody's quite sure how or why these keyboard pieces got the nickname "English," though. Bach didn't even call them the "English Suites"; he called them "Suittes avec leur Preludes pour le Clavecin." They didn't actually acquire the title "English Suites" until the nineteenth century when one of Bach's biographers, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, declared that Bach "made them for an Englishman of rank." 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 their preludes.

Whatever, what we have here are three of the six suites, Nos. 1, 3, and 5 (BWV 806, 808, and 810), played on a Steinway D piano by noted Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Anderszewski, he first came to prominence in the early 1990's and has since performed with many of the world's leading orchestras as well as conducting from the keyboard various chamber orchestras. In the past quarter-odd century he has made a number of recordings for Harmonia Mundi, Accord, and Philips before signing exclusively to Virgin Classics in 2000 (now Warner Classics); and he has won any number of awards for his discs and performances.

Each of Bach's suites begins with a prelude, followed by six or eight dance movements--allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, bourrees, passepieds, and concluding gigues. While the melodies pour forth graciously from all the suites, it's No. 5 in E minor I like best for its refined, flowing lines and noble heart. But that's no matter. If you like the suites, you'll probably appreciate what Anderszewski does with them.

Mr. Anderszewski begins the program with No. 3 in G minor, and it sets the tone for the rest of the suites. No, Anderszewski doesn't display the crisp articulation and crystal clarity of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who probably did as much as anyone to popularize Bach on the piano. But I doubt that Anderszewski is making any attempt to duplicate what Gould and others have already done. Anderszewski is his own man with his own style, which is smooth and agreeable. Of course, how you view "smooth and agreeable" in Bach is a matter of taste, and it may not be yours.

You see, here's the thing: There's a great deal of difference between the sound of a harpsichord and the sound of a modern Steinway. So right there the performance finds itself at odds with the period-instrument crowd. An old friend of mine used to call music of the Baroque period "all that tinkly stuff." I'd say Anderszewski's performances are for people who already have enough recordings of that tinkly stuff or, like my friend, simply don't like it. The question, then, is how smooth is too smooth for Bach? How mellifluous is too mellifluous? How refined is too refined? How sophisticated is too sophisticated? In other words, there may be a few listeners who will not take to Anderszewski's gently expressive, carefully reasoned renditions of Bach.

Piotr Anderszewski
Anyway, No. 3 pretty much shows us where Anderszewski is coming from. His tempos appear well judged, never too lickety-split or helter-skelter nor too leisurely, except when necessary. The playing sounds free, fluid, and flowing, the technical qualities of the performance nigh well flawless. Everything, in fact, seems perfectly in order and, as I say, calculated to please most listeners.

However, I couldn't help questioning from time to time whether Anderszewski wasn't just a tad too calculating; I mean, these interpretations may sound letter-perfect, with some dazzling finger work, but they didn't always strike me as the most spontaneous or joyous I've heard. One might even go so far as to say they sound a bit dreamy-eyed and Romantic (or maybe that's the result of the piano sounding so warm and musical in this recording).

I don't know about the "authenticity" of Anderszewski's approach (the use of a modern piano aside), but I do know that he makes Bach's keyboard works quite accessible, treating each tune with affectionate care and a delicate touch. I know, too, that I enjoyed his readings, especially his handling of the slow movements, where he sometimes finds a sweet melancholy in the music I had never before appreciated as much as here.

Some listeners, particularly Anderszewski's fans, will doubtless praise the man's ability to plumb the depths of intellect and emotion in Bach. Maybe, and surely he does so in No. 5, to me the most serious of the suites; but mainly I just thought Anderszewski's work sounded nice. Then again, I'm a pretty simple guy.

Producers and recording engineers Andrzej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagorko recorded the album in March-June 2014 at the Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland. The piano sound, like the playing, is smooth and mellow. The engineers have given the piano a little space, meaning it sounds moderately distanced and does not extend from one speaker to the other. There is also enough room resonance to simulate a real experience, and a small degree of reverb adds to the piano's slightly soft, warm tone.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa