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- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Pieter-Jan Belder's French Suites very nearly represent my ideal of tempi, repeat schemes, and editorial choices and whatever-else-have-you in baroque keyboard suites. My only reservation about this superb set (admittedly, slight and easily remedied with downloads) is Belder's editorial choices for No.4, but more of that later.
As I listened, I felt a smile of satisfaction irresistibly growing broader and broader. Just a few random jottings of thoughts that came to mind: fluent technique--LH trills and ornaments pose no fears; animated tempi, but never so quick that details don't register; rubato and agogic accents subtly employed to let phrases make sense as a singing line, but never overdone to the point of being unstylistic; one always feels the underlying dance pulse and where one is in the bar; nice instrument with some warmth in the tone; inventive ornamentation especially in the Sarabandes (Belder sometimes withholds a few details of the written ornamentation for the repeat) yet never so much as to obscure the original line or, worse, entirely replace the melody with a different one (in the currently fashionable manner of Natalie Dessay or Renée Fleming--much as I enjoy other aspects of those ladies' art); a very tangible sense of LOVE of this music that is infectious.
Belder's policy on repeats is common sense-ical. I have and have enjoyed Watchorn's English Suites. However, although I'm in favor of playing ALL repeats, Watchorn's policy of extending this even to the da capo's of paired dances (i.e., Menuet I and II) strikes me as overkill. On the basis of the Gavottes from French Suite No.4 (which I downloaded and have heard), I'm presuming he also extends this policy to ALL the dances in the French Suites). Belder always plays da capo's but plays them AB, not AABB, which, personally, I think is the way to do it. Adherents of Watchorn's ideas can buy his recordings instead, and they'll get no argument from me, but I don't have to agree.
Despite my immense delight in Belder's set, I am puzzled by the following: An appendix to the 1890 Gesellschaft includes a Prelude and Gavotte II for No.4. I wish Belder had included these. Watchorn does, but the Prelude leads him to feel he must supply preludes for ALL of the suites, his idea being that Bach might have preceded them with improvised preludes. According to the AMAZON reviews of this set, for this purpose he appropriates preludes from the WTC and elsewhere. (Even his admirers have scruples about this procedure.) I'm NOT saying he's wrong, but I already have recordings of these, and don't need them in an album of the French Suites. Further, Belder's set is MUCH cheaper, even if one supplements it by downloading Watchorn's Prelude and Gavotte I and II (as I did).
Unfortunately, if one wants to program Watchorn's "supplementary" pieces for No.4 into Belder's, the tunings of the instruments create a problem. Watchorn tunes about a minor second below modern pitch, whereas Belder tunes a major second below modern pitch. I easily solved this with the transposition facility of "Audacity". However, if one doesn't want to bother with this, one could download Watchorn's entire No.4 and still get off cheaper.
However, for other reasons, I don't think I'll be getting Watchorn's set:
1. The Gesellschaft appendix also includes Trios for the Menuets of Suites 2, 3 and 4. Belder and Watchorn play the Gesellschaft Trios for 2 and 4. Belder and Watchorn play the same Trio for No.3, but NOT the one in the Gesellschaft. I have no idea of the source for this Trio.
2. Watchorn doesn't include the Suites BWV818 and 819, which nowadays are more and more associated with the French Suites on CD (very probably they were composed during the same period). Presumably, these will surface somewhere else in his series, but personally, I like having them here with the French Suites. Belder includes both of these suites and the alternative version of the Allemande for 819, which turns out to be an example of unconvincingly strained chromaticism. Some of the non-harmonic tones are SO non-harmonic that they sound like wrong notes. Perhaps that's why Bach replaced it, although it's interesting to hear it.
3. I already have a recording of the Little Preludes, so I don't see the point of being forced to buy them with Watchorn's French Suites.
I truly appreciate the principles behind Watchorn's research, but it looks like his series is going to be for Bach completists, which I really am not (not that there's anything wrong with that--I'm a Scriabin completist). It's enough for me to have the French and English suites, Partitas, Goldbergs, Italian Concerto and Variations, French Overture, Inventions, Capriccio, Little Preludes and Fugues, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Four Duets and the WTC. If you like Watchorn's editorial choices, go for it--he's an equally fine player, but his set is four times more expensive.
At any rate, Belder's are as fine a set of these suites as one is likely to come by. As my frontier-bred grandmother from Washington state might have said, "Purt'near perfect."--yup!