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Like the Inventions and Sinfonias, Bach’s French Suites seem destined to remain in the category of music for students. Rarely are they performed either on the concert platform or in the recording studio yet suddenly, like the number nine bus, three have come along at once. Perhaps (hopefully) the tide is turning, for these are great works. Though smaller in scale and more intimate than the English Suites and Partitas they are full of variety and character, but they pose a few problems for the performer. Although periodically revised and altered, the works were not published during Bach’s lifetime and as there is no surviving definitive score, decisions on movement order, alternative movement endings, additional new movements, ornamentation and even notation need making. Decision-making also includes choosing between the harpsichord or Bach’s favourite instrument: the clavichord. The three recordings here proved illuminating and thought- provoking listening, with each performer coming to slightly differing musical conclusions. Happily though, they all agreed on the gravitas-giving importance of including all (or most) repeats.

Richard Egarr prefers the earlier versions of movements which, as he puts it, ‘have a more angular, raw and muscular character’. Performing on an appealing Joel Katzman 2015 harpsichord after Couchet, there is much to enjoy here. Tempi are spot on with a lovely andante yet purposeful pace to the allemandes. Faster courantes (predominantly Italian in style) are rhythmically slick, while toe-tapping gigues achieve the perfect balance between speed and poise. Phrasing is clear and persuasive, and overall there is a relaxed spaciousness and ease, with a florid and creative approach to ornamentation, and intelligent use of registration.

Julian Perkins’ recording opens with a partita by one of Bach's predecessors, Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667), whose music Bach apparently studied. Its D minor key prepares the listener for Bach’s opening French Suite and also acclimatises the ear to the delicate timbre of the clavichord, an hors d’oeuvre perhaps before the main course. A very tasty hors d’oeuvre though, and its expressiveness and careful attention to detail characterises Perkins’ general approach. His dynamic control of two warm-toned clavichords (both by Peter Bavington, after Bodechtel (c.1785) and Silbermann (late 18th century)) is exemplary, and he draws the listener in to many stylish nuances. Preludes are added to Suites 4 and 6 in typical 18th-century fashion while Sarabandes provide an oasis of calm, particularly enjoyable after the busy Italian courantes of Suites 4 and 5. His ability to expose hidden melodic lines is effective, with ornamental creativity allowing for the ‘occasional Perkinism’. Overall there is a more reserved character here than with Egarr perhaps reflecting the contrast in their respective instruments but making these two recordings complementary partners.

For his version of the Suites, Colin Tilney chose an Arnold Dolmetsch clavichord of 1895, based on original Hass instruments. Tilney’s ability to vary his touch between movements is striking at times such that one feels he has a range of registers at his disposal, not just one. He has a deep understanding of these works and plays with great maturity and musicality, though his approach can be a little over-accented. Perhaps it’s the tendency for a more uniformly articulated and sometimes heavy left hand, but the cantabile melodic lines sing out easily, and expressive details are abundant. His movements are less decorative, believing that the clavichord’s greater dynamic colour compensates for the need to add much ‘intrusive’ ornamentation. But he makes effective use of the bebüng, and I prefer his more dance-like tripletising of Suite No. 1’s Gigue, (with due respect to David Schulenberg). Sleeve notes, including thoughts on each Suite make interesting reading.

Katherine May Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing