J.S. Bach
Recommended Recordings


English Suites

Main Performer
or Conductor:
Peter Watchorn
Instrumentation:Harpsichord
Individual Works:English Suite no. 1 in A, BWV 806
English Suite no. 2 in a, BWV 807
English Suite no. 3 in g, BWV 808
English Suite no. 4 in F, BWV 809
English Suite no. 5 in e, BWV 810
English Suite no. 6 in d, BWV 811
Format:Compact Disc
Record Label:Titanic
Catalog Number:Ti-254
Year Released/Recorded:Oct 1998
Total Playing Time:c.157minutes
Comments:Peter Watchorn said:

Review of this release in American Record Guide, Nov - Dec, 1999:

An acclaimed new recording of the English Suites based on extensive research by Peter Watchorn (whose 1995 Doctoral dissertation was devoted to this topic). Played on a very fine copy of an eighteenth-century French harpsichord made by American master harpsichord builder, Walter Burr. Two generous extended length (total time around 157 minutes) cd's include all repeats.Beautifully recorded in natural acoustics. Extensive program notes by the performer. Available from the performer, or Titanic Records, USA.

Jan Hanford said:

The excessive use of the 4' stop on the harpsichord made this recording unpleasant, for me. I found the choppy articulation to be stereotypically "21st century harpsichordist" which along with often awkward and plodding rhythms was not musically appealing. This is, of course, a matter of personal taste. I'm sure there's loads of people out there who love this kind of performance. It just doesn't appeal to me.

Peter Watchorn said:

This recording is now available on the Musica Omnia label as MO 0206.

Jan Hanford's comments above correctly raise some very important and pertinent issues for any listener to these (or any other) harpsichord recordings. I hope the following notes will prove useful.

Registration:

Most Northern European harpsichords had 4' registers - all double manual instruments did. These are used when the plein jeu (full harpsichord sound) is required: to convey a sense of grandeur or majesty - like the organo pleno sound that Bach sometimes specifies in his organ works. Similarly, all baroque organs, especially those in Germany, had a full array of "upperwork": 4' registers, 2' registers, mixtures, mutations etc. This is simply part of the baroque sound, which one is, of course, free to like or dislike. The 18th century clearly liked it a great deal, since including the 4' register on the harpsichord involves quite a lot of extra work and expense, and its inclusion was universal on two-manual instruments. The 4' on Walter Burr's harpsichord, used here, is very carefully voiced. 4' registers require very careful voicing, so that the listener hears the first harmonic added to the fundamental sound - perceived as a colour, not parallel octaves. This particular instrument is a very faithful replica of the 1760 Stehlin harpsichord in the Smithsonian, one of the greatest surviving antiques.

There are no registration indications by Bach in the English Suites (and just a couple in the later Partitas), so these are a matter of personal taste on the part of the player (or listener). In this recording the following registrations are used throughout:

8' (upper), 8' (lower), 2 x 8' (coupled) 2 x 8' (single registers, one used for each of two voices), upper 8' + 4' (the basic Ruckers sound, the prototype of all Northern European harpsichords), lower 8' + 4', plein jeu (8' + 8' + 4') buffed 8 ' (upper) in combination with the lower 8'.

Many modern harpsichord recordings tend to focus on the 2 x 8' combination most of the time, which is, of course, one possibility (and it is used quite often on this recording). In fact preference for this sound is so ubiquitous among modern players that the more than occasional use of the 4' added to the 2 x 8' combination might well come as a shock. And the 4' register is the most difficult to voice, regulate and maintain. Nevertheless, it is essential to THE full harpsichord sound.

I like to use all the other available combinations as well, to provide the variety that the music (in this case 157 minutes of it) seems to me to demand. The piano, of course, like the clavichord has no 4' strings (some 18th century German instruments had 4' strings in the bass, to provide clarity to the lowest notes), so the performer has to work quite hard dynamically to provide tonal variety.

Articulation:

A complete range of articulation, from very long to very short, with many subtle combinations of varying degrees of both ends of the scale, is absolutely necessary to the performance of baroque music. On the harpsichord this is fundamental to conveying the sense of dynamics that, on the piano or clavichord, can be provided by touch alone.

There are very few articulation indications provided by Bach himself. My own belief as a performer is that a basically legato touch is the one that provides the fullest sound, and also best allows articulated notes to be heard clearly when they are used against it as a backdrop. Despite what Jan reported hearing, there is actually very little "choppy" articulation used in this or any other of my recordings, which is quite unusual for a present day harpsichordist. I have occasionally been taken to task for differing from what is today the norm: constant short, choppy playing with no sustain. It's just my own choice, but to me it serves the music and the instrument's inherent qualities best. My approach to touch and articulation is basically that which I learned from my teacher, Isolde Ahlgrimm, in Vienna, who could make any instrument sound good, and who truly understood all the issues involved. The real challenge in harpsichord performance is to hold notes down long enough to allow the instrument to "bloom": many 18th century writers commented on this characteristic of the harpsichord (its inability to naturally sustain like the organ, or the voice), which was to be overcome if possible by the player. I employ any unusual device, like unvarying very short articulation, occasionally as a special colour. It's a question of personal preference, and it depends on many factors: the room acoustic, the instrument, your mood, the music's basic character (or the performer's idea of what that is). The listener will hear plenty of "bloom" on this recording (and all my other ones, especially the new Well-Tempered Clavier recording, released this year).

Rhythm:

On the harpsichord it is rhythm above all else, as well as articulation, that conveys the structure and internal dynamics of the music. The other important factor is use of correct tempos for the various dances, some of which (like the French courante - a slow 3 in a bar), when you follow the original dance steps, are surprising to modern day listeners. It goes without saying that an alert sense of rhythm is essential to good harpsichord - or any other - performance. It is something that I am aware of above all else, and my concern for this is, I believe, fully conveyed in this now 9 year old recording.

Fortunately in music, there is room for many different viewpoints: indeed, performers themselves may well feel differently about things at different times. This, to me, is one music's great strengths: that it is not set in stone, and that it moves people - performers and listeners - differently. It also reveals one of the inherent problems of recording: what you have is simply a snapshot of one performance, when many alternatives are (and were) possible. Lastly, opinions can change (among performers and listeners alike). Upon repeasted listening, as new things reveal themselves,likes can become dislikes, and vice versa. I am grateful for the reader's tolerance in accepting this lengthy post, but perhaps it is helpful for the listener to know what dictated my choices back in 1997 - and in most cases, would do so today. Finally, we must all agree on one thing: that Bach's music is better than it can ever be played.

Acknowledgements:Thank you to the following for submitting this recording and for your comments:
  • Peter Watchorn
And from the collection of Jan Hanford
Date First Submitted:11/13/1999
Purchasing:Suggested Purchasing Sources
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