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on 9 August 2001
Angela Hewitt brings the French Suites dazzingly to life. It's hard not to fall in love with this set, which is carried throughout by a lightness of touch and rhythmic lilt that captures all the grace of Bach's keyboard writing. A real selling-point of this enchanting disc must also be the so-called fillers: a Sonata for D originally scored for another key on the violin, and the 18 little preludes so familiar to learners of the piano. The preludes in particular are played with such a sense pure delight that the disc would be well worth the money for these alone. More please, Angela!
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on 6 May 2000
This is a stunning recording. The readings are faithful and clear, and I don't think I've ever heard the different lines of Bach's polyphony so well articulated. Her tone is absolutely beautiful and without any suggestion of pedal. Sometimes I've caught my breath in wonder at a particular effect she's created. Underneath it all lies a strong intelligence, and the recording quality is faultless. There are some wonderfully daring fast moves. Eat your heart out, Glenn Gould - I think you've just been knocked off a perch.
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The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt has recorded Bach's complete works for solo keyboard on 14 CD releases. Her recording of the French Suites was the second in the cycle, dating from 1995. In Bach's music and in Hewitt's performance, this is a special recording. In addition, the CD is special to me. I received it as a surprise gift from two friends. I was touched that they gave me a gift and that they knew me well enough to make a perfect choice.

I approached this CD from the perspective of an amateur who tries to play Bach on the piano. I learned a great deal from Hewitt's performances as well as from her detailed liner notes. Hewitt is not a period performer. Rather, she plays Bach on the piano with an appreciation of the capabilities of the instrument to capture the spirit of the music. Her playing tends toward restraint and self-effacement. Bach's music comes first. Hewitt writes in her liner notes of the decisions that need to be made in playing even the technically easiest pieces of Bach in matters such as tempo, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and ornamentation. Her thougtful approach to the French Suites and other music on this CD set comes through in every measure. I tried to listen to the linear character of the music in each of the two hands. Hewitt emphasizes the melodic line, but each line of the music can be heard with clarity. This is a difficult attainment on the piano.

Bach's six French Suites were composed between 1722 and 1725. They are based upon dance movements used in French and Italian music of his day, but there is nothing particularly "French" about the suites. The movements of each suite are in the same key, unlike, say, the latter classical sonata. Of Bach's six suites, the first three are in minor keys while the second three are in major keys. The suites begin with a flowing dance called an allemande, followed by a generally livelier dance called a courante, and then a slow stately dance called a sarabande. Each suite concludes with a rhythmic rapid dance called a gigue. The remaining movements in each suite differ but usually include a minuet. Bach's French Suites tend to be less complex and less fugual than much of his other keyboard music.

The Suites each have an individual character in Hewitt's reading. For example the first French Suite in d minor opens with an unusually spacious and serious allemande. It includes a slow, chordal sarabande and concludes with a difficult fugual gigue. The Suite no. 4 in E flat major has a meditative character. Hewitt makes some unusual performance choices in this Suite by beginning it with a prelude and including a second gavotte that are not found in most editions or recordings. (There are many variants in the editions of the Suites.) She integrated these movements beautifully into the whole. The Fifth Suite in G major is the most frequently performed of the set. It opens with a beautifully phrased allemande and concludes with a famous and brilliant gigue which Hewitt describes as a "cross between Vivaldi and a country fiddling jamboree." The Sixth Suite is also well-known. It begins with a joyful, contrapuntal allemande and is of a generally lyrical character. Hewitt's performances of the Suites will reward repeated hearings.

This 2-CD set also includes substantial additional music. Hewitt includes three sets of six little preludes that Bach composed as teaching pieces for his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. These works are even today given to young pianists as a first exposure to Bach. For aspiring pianists at all levels, it is instructive to hear the effort and musicality that Hewitt begins to these little works.

Two larger-scale virtuoso works round out the CD. The four movement sonata in d minor is a transcription of a Bach sonata for solo violin in a minor. It is in the form slow-fast-slow-fast with a lengthy difficult fugue in the second movement and poignant opening and third movements. The CD concludes with the Prelude and Fugue in a minor which is also a transcription from the outer movements of Bach's Triple Concerto for flute, violin, harpsichord, and strings. This is a concertante, bravura piece for solo piano which makes extended use of rapid-fire passages in triplets.

Angela Hewitt is one of the finest performers of Bach. There could be no better gift than this CD to someone who loves music.

Total Time: 150:54

Robin Friedman
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on 5 February 2006
Recorded early in Angela Hewitt's Bach cycle, the popular French Suites (along with the "Little Preludes" and other two more dynamic virtuoso pieces) take a step back from the more serious and complex fugal compositions of Bach and settle into the restrained elegance of the courtly and rustic dances of the era. Although Bach never titled these works as "French," the suites take much of their inspritation from the various "dance" forms of music in that period (French mainly) that form each suite: the processional German-inspired allemandes ... the stately French courantes ... the spicier Italian correntes ... the slow and meditative sarabandes of Spanish-origin ... the French-aristocratic minuets, gavottes and airs ... the bouncy and free-spirited bourrees ... and, to close the suite, the most musically serious French gigues (inspired by the English 'jig'). The three minor-key suites take a more introverted flavor while the three major-key suites are more extraverted and bright. Suites 5 and 6 are perhaps the most popular for their bright, major-key sounds.
Angela Hewitt's poised playing here wonderfully matches the spirit of this noble music and is best described as refined, elegant and with great artistry. Her decorative touches never seem overdone and always delightfully enhance the atmosphere of the music. Penguin Guide gave this set their "Recommended Recording" of all the available recordings of the French Suites, which seems to attest to Hewitt's ability to match her style and execution with the intent of the composition. It all just sounds "right" for this type of music. Addtionally, the sound quality is clear and without extraneous noise and has a somewhat-spacious but pleasant ambiance.
The so-called "Little Preludes" were exercises for Bach's son or pupils but really are not so "little" in terms of style or substance. Most are light and delightful - with some pure charm (BWV933). Notably Hewitt makes them all sound - not as mere exercises - but as viable performances in themselves. On a more virtuostic scale are the "filler works" on this CD: the Sonata in D minor and the Prelude/Fugue in A minor - the former being transcribed from the solo violin sonata in A minor (BWV 1003) and the latter being a work Bach later encorporated into the "Triple Concerto (BWV 1044, on Hewitt's Bach Concertos Vol. I). The closing allegro of the Sonata is a highlight and is played by Hewitt with an effortless radiance. Her galloping triplets and ever-so delicate and deft shifts in dynamics and touch here create the famous Bach "echo" that gives a facinating and larger-than-life quality to the movement. All-in-all, a most pleasant, accessible and artistic recording from one of the most talented pianists playing Bach today.
If you are trying to sort out Bach's great solo keyboard music, you can characterize them like this in general: the French Suites are overall the most refined, elegant and 'restrained' musically (French courtly style) as compared to the more dynamic preludes and dances in the English Suites (but also having haughtingly-beautiful sarabandes to contrast). Along with the great showpiece, the Chromatic Fantasy/Fugue in C minor, the Partitas and Toccatas are certainly the most outright virtuostic of the sets - with the latter being the most free of form and the most extemporaneous sounding. The two books of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are in a class of their own from the often-charming preludes in Book I to the most complex musical-intelligence contained in the fugues of Book II. Bach's WTC is both systematic and pedogogic but also delightfully lyrical and often deeply meditative. This wide range of contrasting emotional qualities (movements) is really characteristic of nearly all of Bach's keyboard music and is most marvelously showcased in the legenday 30 Goldberg Variations. All of Angela Hewitt's Bach recordings are excellent (no 'dogs') and are consistently rated among the top 2 or 3 choices in the field.
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on 18 September 2013
Excellent music impaired by a very badly-designed arrangement and presentation of the pieces: this means that listening to suites is a clumsy process.
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on 16 June 2012
Father Melchizedek OP, the High Priest of Period Practice, was busy excavating the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assisting him in this cause was Cato, his trusty man-servant. Mind you, the latter was doing all the physical labour whereas the cleric was sitting under an umbrella, lemonade in hand, and breezily scrutinising whatever artefacts were unearthed by the spade of his minion.

"Observe, dear Cato, the remains of this ancient banjo from the court of Ashurbanipal. Clearly the Assyrians were deeply enamoured of the so-called French pitch at 396HZ. In itself, it is another argument against the syrup of Karajanism."

The phone rang. With deference, Cato passed it to his master.

"Hello, you are speaking with Father Melchizedek OP!" the cleric declared daintily. "Have lute, will travel!"

"Preacher, my name is Mrs Hewitt. We live in Ottawa. Our daughter Angela is possessed! We need an exorcist!"

"Possessed? How so?"

"She is speaking Latin, Aramaic and neo-Babylonian!"

"Don't think anything of it - she's probably precocious!"

"Errr, she is also climbing around on the ceiling and vomiting green ooze on all and sundry!"

"She probably wants to become a gymnast and has a cold at the moment!"

"Her head can rotate 360 degrees on her neck!"

"More proof that she wants to become a gymnast and has the flexibility to do so! Madame, there is no cause for concern!"

"She is playing Bach on a piano!"

Father Melchizedek rose to his feet, electrified: "Good heavens, woman: your daughter is possessed and the devil's name is Legion! I will be there presently!" The cleric terminated the call and turned to his trusty man-servant.

"Cato," he squawked. "Warm up the Silver Hornet!"

Twelve hours later, suitcase in hand, Father Melchizedek stood underneath a street-lamp as he glared at the residence in question. One of its windows was open, allowing a column of light to spear his way. Someone was playing Bach on a piano. It was the lovely Allemande of the E Flat French Suite. Its sisters soon followed. After a short pause, the preludes for W F Bach were surveyed.

Most listeners would say this was highly accomplished and poetic playing. The pianist was not afraid of the beast at her disposal; indeed, with élan she joyfully exploited her instument's power and expressivity in pursuit of an exalted conception. Her articulation, dynamics and palette were phenomenal. The pianist was deeply alive to the dance-element of these works and their courtly nature. Her ornamentations were always acute and tasteful. The polyphony rang true and clear - not once was it swamped by the melodic line. The drama of the great D Minor suite was unerringly conveyed - and more than usual, the listener was conscious of the elation of Johann Sebastian Bach as he created these luminous, life-affirming works. The preludes written for Wilhelm Friederich emerged as stronger, more vital works than normal. In short, the recital was the complete opposite of Bach as a dusty lesson in algebra. Radiance and splendour, wit and depth: it was all here. True, the pianist lacked the bounce and aggression of Glenn Gould in these works but was no worse off for that. The sound was marvellously clear and transparent.

But this was wasted on the cleric - all Father Melchizedek could hear was a Black Mass on a Steinway. After donning his pectoral cross, he checked his armoury: a copy of the Art of the Fugue by Davitt Moroney - check; a vial of holy water - check; and a rapid-fire recorder with a nasal tone - check.

Having girded his loins, it was time for battle. Without so much as a knock on the door, Father Melchizedek burst into the house and screeched out in falsetto:

"I command you, unclean spirit of Karajan-ism, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the power invested in me by St David of Munrow, that you tell me your name! I command you, moreover, to obey me to the last clipped phrase, I who am the High Priest of Period Practice despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this score of Johann Sebastian Bach, the person at the keyboard or any bystanders. I cast you forth, unclean spirit, along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every spectre from the Hell of High Romanticism and all your fell companions; in the name of pitch at 410HZ!"

The piano fell silent. Holding his pectoral cross in front of him, Father Melchizedek strode down the hallway and into the music-room. Much to his surprise, there was no Steinway. In fact, the room was empty other than some Bose speakers that were attached to the high ceiling.

"How very odd," the cleric mused to himself.

All of a sudden, the door behind him slammed shut. Roller-shutters sealed off the windows. The lights were dimmed.

"Father Melchizedek," an old husky voice with a thick German accent croaked over the speakers, "how nice of you to drop by. We're very fond of you at Universal Imports. Indeed, I staged my death back in 1989 in preparation for this very moment! I would to take this opportunity to play some of my old records to you! You're not going anywhere, are you?"

Bach: Mass in B minor

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on 9 June 2016
A must-have recording from this exceptional artist.
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on 11 October 2004
Technically very accomplished and fluent that is deceptively attractive on first hearing, but not much goings on musically, especially in left hand part. Another pianist who plays Bach like Schubert. Can not stand repeated listening.
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