Richard Egarr's playing is top-notch to my ears, although he has come in for some less than enthusiastic descriptions in recent reviews: "far from what one could call flashy" (Handel organ concerti), "leisurely" (Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier), even -- lowest of the low -- "musicologically valuable" (Mozart fantasias and rondos). Well, I take it all back after listening to this absorbing new disc of Purcell's under-played keyboard suites. For pieces that are not all that much, in terms of technical demands, Egarr presents their best side, playing each movement with a sense of theatrical panache on his Joel Katzman instrument (made in Amsterdam in 1991 after a 17th-century Ruckers instrument). It is clear from the performances that Egarr cherishes these eight suites, finding in them, as he puts it in his liner essay, "harmonic, melodic and textural twists, oddities, and eccentricities that are deeply and uniquely rooted in a land that seems to specialize in the zany," ranging from "wonderful beauties" to "heart-breaking depths and earthy 'fish-slapping' humour."
Purcell, Keyboard Suites and Grounds, R. Egarr (harpsichord)
(released September 9, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907428
Henry Purcell, Suites, Lessons and Pieces for the Harpsichord
As noted of his Well-Tempered Clavier recording, Egarr tends to stretch out the prelude movements a bit too much for my taste. When the sense of rhythmic line disappears almost completely, it's probably too far. The dances, however, mostly crunch satisfyingly with palpable rhythmic verve. Most admirably, the embellishment are among the most extensive and tasteful in my memory for a harpsichord recording, making this essential listening for all keyboard students and players who want to get a sense of how far a player can go in ornamenting Baroque music. As musicological lagniappes, Egarr throws in two movements transcribed from a manuscript that has recently come to light in the British Library (ms. Mus.1), which yields a jig (Gigue) to append to the incomplete A minor suite and an alternate prelude for the C major. He even improvises, in passable Baroque style, a prelude for the prelude-less D minor.
Between each pair of suites, Egarr inserts a variation set, one chaconne, the Round O, and five grounds. These round out the picture of Purcell the keyboard composer, with that most Baroque of compositional techniques, the variation set over a repeated bass pattern. Worth a special look is the Ground in Gamut (Z. 645), eight variations on the same eight-bar harmonic pattern that opens the Aria of the Goldberg Variations (I-V6-vii°6/V-V-I6 (V65/IV)-IV-V7-I). Having often read that Bach's aria, whose provenance (if any other than Bach himself) remains unidentified, is related to the generic patterns of earlier variation sets, I was glad to have a concrete example. The similarity makes this little Purcell ground, about two minutes in length, a perfect encore for a performance of the Goldberg Variations.
The only omission Egarr makes, for lack of disc space, is the unnumbered suite in C major, not in the set of eight published in 1696 (it was published in 1687 and is given the number 665 in the Zimmerman catalogue -- Zimmerman strangely left the number 664 unassigned). One hopes that Egarr will pair that suite with more of the individual Purcell pieces for a companion disc in the future. For now, Egarr's set of the eight numbered suites is the leader of the pack, knocking out previous complete sets, competent but not all that distinctive, by Raymond Touyère (Gallo), Terence Charlston (Naxos), and John Gibbons (Centaur). The Purcell fan will surely still be interested in the excellent complete set of Purcell's chamber music (Brilliant), which includes a set of the suites and other keyboard music played by Pieter-Jan Belder (a unbelievable steal at under $30 for seven discs).
This fall Richard Egarr will play a recital at the Baltimore Museum of Art, as part of the Shriver Hall series, featuring a complete performance of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (November 15, 3 pm). We advise you not to miss it. Hopefully, some Purcell will show up in his encores.