Bach’s English and French Suites weren’t given that title by the composer. Those designations came later, and there’s even some debate about how particularly “French” or “English” the suites actually are. But there are some distinctions to be made between the two: the French suites tend to have a more intimate, melodic style of writing that is less contrapuntal and less virtuosic perhaps than the English Suites which tend to be somewhat longer, more complex, and also include preludes to the dance movements.
A 2013 Music and Arts release presents keyboardist Colin Tilney performing the French Suites on an 1895 Dolmetsch five-octave clavichord, an instrument based on an earlier one constructed by Johann Adolph Hass in the mid to late 18th century.
Printed directly onto the front of the CD is the instruction to “play at low volume for realistic sound reproduction.” And even if you turn the volume all the way up, it won’t be very loud as the recording levels are inherently low on this disc. It’s by design, and as a result, listeners are gently prodded into a different sound world.
Another thing to listen for in this recording is the use of vibrato. Unlike a harpsichord or a piano, the clavichord alone is capable of this effect. A piano has hammers that strike the string, a harpsichord has a mechanism that plucks the string, but a clavichord has a tangent that comes into direct contact with the string, and stays in contact even after the initial impetus. Thus, a player can subtly shape a note in ways more nuanced than a harpsichord or a piano.
The 1895 Dolmetch instrument that Tilney uses on his recording might not be the loudest clavichord that he could have chosen—more range might actually be available on some other models, but even the loudest clavichords are too soft for most concert halls. Designed for use in homes, unless you have a clavichord in your living room this CD might be your best shot—certainly any appearance in a large concert hall of today would be less than satisfying. But beyond the instrument, there are plenty of recordings of the French Suites—and this is not the only, or the first available performed on clavichord. As for Tilney’s interpretations, don’t expect fireworks or grand display, but do listen for lots of nuance that comes through in tempos that might be slower than what you are used to hearing.
An equally enjoyable recording of Bach’s English suites was also released by Harmonia Mundi last year. Harpsichordist, Richard Egarr performs on an instrument built in 1991 by Joel Katzman—modeled after an original instrument from 1638. The pitch he performs at is A=409.
The English Suites are generally thought to be the earliest of Bach’s keyboard works composed certainly before 1725, and maybe even as early as 1715. The English Suites weren’t published during Bach’s lifetime, but manuscripts and copies made by Bach’s students, and even one by his son Johann Christian seemed to have been in wide circulation. Much of the music for the 6 French Suites however, were included in Anna Magdalena’s 1722 notebook–a collection of pieces Bach presented to his second wife shortly after they were married.
Like Tilney’s recording, in Egarr’s there is the sense that he takes his time with this music, that he doesn’t try to make it something other than it is and that he trusts his instrument, pushing it to its limit while still keeping a sense of control. In that way, there is depth and maturity, not only attention grabbing abandon—or a rushed whirlwhind of breakneck speed. In both recordings, there is plenty of room to hear all the details.