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Briefly Noted: Egarr's English Suites

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J. S. Bach, English Suites,
R. Egarr (harpsichord)

(released on February 12, 2013)
HMU 907591.92 | 141'23"
We always want to hear Richard Egarr play, and the recordings in his ongoing series of the works of J. S. Bach are guaranteed to find their way to my ears. In the latest installment, the six English suites, Egarr uses the same Joel Katzman harpsichord (Amsterdam, 1991, after a 1638 Ruckers instrument built in Antwerp), to beautiful effect. Here he has declined, however, to use Bradley Lehman's unequal temperament, derived from the squiggle on the front page of the manuscript of The Well-Tempered Clavier, preferring instead his own temperament, "based on 18th-century models" (A=409). Egarr approaches these pieces with a much less academic touch than the more abstract Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier, perhaps because as he states in his liner notes, those pieces invite a more "analytical approach," the English suites "seem to delight in purely keyboard pleasure and imagination that is often absent from the later works." Egarr gives the pieces plenty of sparkle, with some lithe tempos, not dizzying, little that drags, and particularly effusive and decorative ornamentation.

Unfortunately, in his notes Egarr also drags himself into numerological analysis, which is the downfall of many analysts of Bach's music -- e.g., the "opening theme of 3 notes (with a noticeable descending 3rd) has 7 entries, followed by a long sequence based on seventh-chord harmonies, with the first musical paragraph ending in bar 33." I have a feeling that one could find any numbers one wanted in any music, and the temptation to read significance into such things is particularly strong with Bach, whose music is often so abstract but so appealing that one craves some hidden explanation as to what it might mean. Take what you will from Egarr's description of the cycle of suites as a journey from lightness into "deformities and feelings of distraction which infect the music," so that in the final movement "diabolic trills infest the helpless long notes around which incessantly restless demons dance." For Egarr, it adds up to "a musical journey to a most fearful place," with the order of the key centers -- Egarr wisely keeps the suites in Bach's intended order (A,a, g, F, e, d) -- spelling out the beginning of the chorale tune Jesu, meine Freude, pointing the way toward redemption. I don't know about all that, but you can put this set on the shelf with the best recordings for harpsichord (Christophe Rousset, Gustav Leonhardt) and updated to the piano (Angela Hewitt, Piotr Anderszewski, Glenn Gould, Murray Perahia, András Schiff).

available at Amazon
available at Amazon
available at Amazon

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