J.S. Bach:  French Suites: Nos. 1 in D minor, S.812, 2 in C minor, S.813, 3 in B minor, S.814, 4 in E-flat, S.815, 5 in G, S.816, and 6 in E, S.817, preceded by Preludes Nos. 1, S.875a, 2, S.999, 3, S.923, 5, S.902a, & 6, S.855/i; and 20 Little Preludes, S.924-43; Peter Watchorn, harpsichord (Zuckermann, 2009, after Christian Vater, 1728); Musica Omnia mo 0402, © 2011, TT 161:34 (63:01 + 68:18 + 30:15), $23.99.
These six suites were never published during Bach’s lifetime. They were first edited by Bach’s biographer Johann Forkel in 1802; Carl Czerny edited them again in 1840. Five were in the notebook that Bach prepared for his second wife Anna Magdelena in 1722, where they were each entitled simply “Suite pour le Clavessin.” Some are recopied in a second notebook of 1725. Several of Bach’s admirers, friends, and students made copies, all of which contain variants. There were two other suites, in A minor, S.818a, and in E-flat, S.819, that also appear with these in some collections. Over 50 manuscript sources total exist for these eight works. The name “French Suites” was first given to them by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg in 1762, and popularized by Forkel, who said they generally follow the French style, although they are in fact closer to the Italian style.
Real "French" suites generally begin with a Prelude. The keyboard ones evolved from Renaissance suites for the lute, which had un-measured preludes, allowing for some rhythmic improvisation by the performer. Of these by Bach, only No. 4 seems ever to have had a prelude associated with it in one or another manuscript version, which explains the anomaly of the above listing. Watchorn has researched these works extensively and has put the prelude for Suite No. 4 back in place and discovered others among the unpublished works that go appropriately with the other suites, which he also plays in versions he has assembled involving da capo repeats of the Menuet I’s after the Menuet II’s in the first three suites and of the Gavotte I after the Gavotte II in the fourth that were not indicated in the manuscript notebooks but that represent standard practice of the period. They do indeed sound normal and seamless as performed here in this traversal of them on a fairly new instrument, a replica of one from Bach’s time, which has a very nice sound. The Little Preludes come from the Clavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann, written to help develop the playing skills of Bach’s children. (W.F. was the eldest.) All of this suggests that the suites were initially written for the instruction of family members and subsequently took on a professional pedagogical usage by JSB, and that he either never desired or never got around to preparing them for publication.
The performance and the recorded sound are excellent. The recording venue is the Milton, MA, church St. Mary of the Hills; the CD is issued in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of its 1931 founding. It is quite reverberant, but pleasing. Australian-born, Cambridge, MA-based, and DMA-holding Watchorn is a scholar of harpsichord music and its performance as well as of the instruments themselves. I reviewed his biography of Isolde Ahlgrimm in these pages. His playing is sterling, golden even. This set offers an immensely satisfying listening experience.
The accompanying booklet has some strange features, however. Its cover carries a color photo of a pastel painting of C.P.E. Bach by an unknown 18th century German-school artist rather than a portrait of the composer of the works recorded. Its inside page is a full-sized very large-type spread of information (composer, works, performer, instrument) found elsewhere, followed by the track listings and timings in rather large typeface and spread over the four following pages, with Watchorn’s bio and an accompanying small b&w photo occupying page 7. The back cover (page 24), features a color photo of the instrument without its music stand; its inside has the credits on the left half and a b&w reproduction of part of the cover photo on its right half. There are 3 b&w photos of the instrument with its music stand, one of which appears in color beneath the case’s plastic CD holder, and a b&w photo of a bust of JSB scattered among the later pages of notes. This adds up to unnecessary overkill and wasted space.
The program notes are written in an interesting manner, "cast as an imaginary interview, designed to allow us to penetrate further into Bach’s inner world.” This is a clever and effective concept and entertaining reading. Curiously, however, the continuity of the "interview" that runs from page 8 to page 22 is interrupted by the printed score of the Prelude in E, S.932, and Watchorn’s note about it – only its beginning exists; he has completed it – on pages 10-13, sort of like an ad interrupting an article in a magazine. Surely a better layout could have been achieved.
The case/packaging deserves a detailed description. It’s a glossy, rigid, slightly-heavier-than-card-stock paper outer shell with a plastic tray glued to the inside of the back cover. This tray has a 2-CD lift-up holder, with a 2-sided central post with 3 wide clips on each side, that holds two CDs, hinged to a single CD base, which has 4 small clips that grasp the CD’s outer edge rather than a central post. The booklet slips into a slit in the inside of the front cover. The whole thus occupies just slightly more than the space of a single-CD jewel case on the shelf. I personally find jewel cases anything but precious because their clear covers are very susceptible to cracking and their tabs with posts attaching them to their tray-holding base quite susceptible to breaking off. The weak points of the trays are the narrow posts to which the CDs are ‘clipped,’ which also often break off. I am always examining new experimental concepts and formats that eliminate these disadvantages, generally preferring them; this is one of the most clever and unusual that I have seen to date. It appears to be less fragile in careful handling than the ubiquitous "jewel case," although it probably won’t take abuse any better. Anything that reduces the footprint on the shelf is also always welcome.
This set deserves a place on your shelves alongside those of musicians with greater name recognition because of its extraordinarily high quality. The concept of creating more complete and polished works of what were composed as pedagogical exercises to offer a wide variety of dance rhythms by using related similar pieces by the same composer is perhaps not unique, but most recordings don’t begin to offer this. There are some sets, like Christopher Hogwood’s, that include the other two aforementioned suites, but that is a different perspective: its goal is completeness rather than completion. Watchorn chose to include the 20 Little Preludes rather than performing the same operation for those two suites.