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CD Review: Egarr's French Suites

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: A cellist’s solo “Trance.” / Egarr's French Suites
Washington Post, August 14

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, French Suites R. Egarr (harpsichord)

(released on May 27, 2016)
HMU907583.84 | 105'33"
J.S. Bach’s keyboard suites should leap off the page and tickle the ear. The challenges are more pronounced on the harpsichord than on its modern equivalent, and one of the best at making the older instrument sparkle is Richard Egarr. Continuing to work his way through Bach’s keyboard works, Egarr has released a new recording of Bach’s “French Suites.” The poor cousins of the longer, more complex “Partitas” and “English Suites,” these “little” pieces, Egarr says, “are simply a collection brought together with no particular through story.”

Egarr takes considerable rhythmic freedom. He adds ornamentation, and not only on the repeats, making this a fine primer for pianists in how to embellish. Furthermore, the disc offers a mini-lesson in how to create a performing edition. The dances gathered in this collection probably began life as educational pieces for members of the Bach family. Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, his sons and his students copied some of them into their notebooks, providing a range of variants to be chosen from and studied. Following the “straight” versions of the six suites, Egarr has recorded four alternative tracks for the C Minor Suite, one variation of the Menuet and three versions of the Courante.

If this sounds like a dry academic exercise, it’s not. Egarr plays on a relatively new instrument, built by Joel Katzman in the Netherlands, modeled on the Joseph Johannes Couchet harpsichord owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a broad range of possible registrations, all beautiful, increased because the player can divide the sound between the treble and bass halves of each keyboard, and Egarr seems to use all of them. Aficionados may be interested to know that in his tuning, Egarr has backed away from the Bradley Lehman “hidden temperament” that he used in his recordings of the “Goldberg Variations” and “Well-Tempered Clavier” in favor of his own modification of the Vallotti temperament, although the difference is probably imperceptible to most listeners.

Most important, Egarr’s interpretative choices follow the sunny arc of Bach’s set, in which three suites in minor keys are succeeded by three in major keys. Bach creates a sort of crescendo of variety in the dances, increasing the number of optional dances (those falling between the sarabande and the gigue) from one in the first suite to an eclectically diverse four in the sixth suite. Egarr’s approach becomes more virtuosic and varied as he nears that final piece, especially in the ebullient gigues of the last two suites.
Harpsichord by Joseph Johannes Couchet (undated), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Goldberg Variations
Well-Tempered Clavier
English Suites

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