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Decca 4832150 (2CD)
S Bach composed his French Suites (or at least the first five) in 1722 for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, who used them for teaching. (They are in her “notebook”). These dance suites, showing all the composer’s contrapuntal skill, are less outgoing than the English Suites and Partitas, suggesting they were designed solely for domestic use and may in fact have been intended for the clavichord.
Vladimir Ashkenazy, on this new recording, plays a concert grand. “I use few ornaments and don’t think of the sound of the harpsichord,” he writes. “What I try to do is play on what we have today, and make the combination of voices as clear as possible.” That he does, and produces some warm-toned pianism into the bargain. The Sarabandes, in particular those from Suites Nos 1 and 5, are sensitively caressed; the Gigue from Suite No 3 teeters excitingly on the edge.
Ashkenazy turned 80 in July of this year, and has retired from public piano concertising due to arthritis, but this is barely hinted at in these 2016 recordings. The Courante from Suite No 5 would probably have been more fluent earlier in his career, but overall there is no doubting his musicianship and continuing ability to express it. An unmistakable love for Bach’s music permeates these performances, all the more touching because of its unadorned simplicity.
Pianist Murray Perahia recorded these pieces for DG in 2013. His approach, informed by period scale and practice, could not be more different. Though poised and elegant as ever, Perahia loads the music with ornamentation – sometimes too much, in my view. His Gigue from Suite No 2, with an appoggiatura on every note, sounds comically clumsy on the piano. Authenticity is all very well, and mandatory of course on a period instrument, but for a piano version I prefer Ashkenazy.