J.S. BACH: Orchestral Suites
Le Concert des Nations
Jordi Savall, conductor
(Alia Vox Heritage, 2 CDs)
Period-instrument performances are plentiful; performances that actually conjure the period in question are not. Recorded in the Great Hall of the Arsenal in Metz, France, in August 1990 and originally released on Astrée, this set of Bach’s four Orchestral Suites from Catalan gambist and conductor Jordi Savall is finally available again from Savall’s own label, Alia Vox.
Listening to Savall’s Bach is like stepping back into the 18th century. The double-dotted tripartite Overtures that open each Suite are ceremonial but not ponderous; the central sections skip lightly and playfully. Unlike so many period-instrument performers, Le Concert des Nations is not on automatic pilot: wit, elegance, and grace abound. The sound is clear, full, and rich, with rustic winds, silvery trumpets, and percussion that’s heavy and resonant without being hard.
It’s difficult to imagine that the famous Air from Suite No. 3 — the “Air on the G String,” one of the most played pieces of classical music — could sound new, but this performance, with Fabio Biondi on solo violin, is an endless summer that luxuriates in its own beauty. And though it’s often asserted that Bach composed these suites, which are made up of stylized dance forms, for listening, not dancing, when you hear Savall’s sprightly Menuet from No. 1 or the stately Sarabande from No. 2 and the galloping Bourrée that follows, you may find it hard to stay seated.
HANDEL: The Eight Great Suites
Lisa Smirnova, piano
While Bach’s keyboard works are still commonly played on piano, Handel’s suites are now encountered almost exclusively on harpsichord. They have never been the most popular part of his oeuvre, suffering in comparison to both Handel’s vocal music and to Bach’s keyboard works.
But Lisa Smirnova, a Russian-born pianist, gives a big boost to these works with this outstanding recording of Handel’s first set of keyboard suites, published in 1720. She has, in a way, squared the circle: coloring the music in a way that can only be done on a modern piano without losing the air and transparency that period instruments impart.
The result is a set of performances that exude energy and charm. While the Handel suites don’t approach Bach’s for sheer inventiveness or harmonic complexity, they’re amazingly diverse in form and character.
Everything sparkles, from the gloriously even trills that begin the Second Suite to the famous variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith” that end the Fifth. And there are moments of drama in the minor-key suites that rival anything in Bach’s Partitas or French Suites. The concluding Passacaglia in the Seventh Suite is breathtaking in its force.
Smirnova writes in a liner note that she came upon Handel’s keyboard suites by chance in 2000 and was so entranced that she spent much of the seven years leading up to this recording working on them. The evidence of her devotion is everywhere.
Steven Osborne, piano
Among countless other things, Beethoven presided over a drastic expansion of musical form, constructing large musical shapes knit together by motivic and harmonic interactions. Listening to his three sets of piano bagatelles, one imagines him relaxing from his labors, indulging himself the chance to state an idea, enjoy it, and then let it go. The bagatelles may be miniatures — the shortest lasts only 12 seconds — but they are, in their own way, as masterfully conceived as many of the composer’s larger-scaled works. They’re alternately filled with long, elegant melody and mischievous wit.
That’s especially true of the earlier set, Op. 33. The two later sets, Opp. 119 and 126, include music written when Beethoven was at work on his late masterpieces, and here and there one hears insights from those works telescoped into compact form.
The straightforward nature of Steven Osborne’s playing is one of the secrets of this disc’s success. He doesn’t try to make the bagatelles any more than they are, and in so doing, makes a powerful case for their value. He renders them simply, with a minimum of pushing and pulling and an iridescent tone. A miscellany of other short piano works concludes the album, including “Für Elise,” played without pretension or kitsch, just like everything else here.
THE DEBUSSY EDITION
The sequence of important composer birthdays continues apace. This year it is the sesquicentennial of the birth of Debussy, a composer whose sonic and timbral innovations seemed to come out of nowhere. The gentle flute solo that opens “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” had an innocent surface beauty, but in its effect on the music that followed it was monumental.
Compilations like this one, which mine a record label’s vaults to provide a synopsis of a composer’s work, feel somewhat outdated in an age when so much music is so readily available from so many sources.
Nevertheless, this 18-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon — with a few entries from the Decca and Philips labels, owned by the same parent company — offers a top-notch overview of Debussy’s all-too-concise output. Chief among the highlights are Pierre Boulez’s performances of the orchestral music with the Cleveland Orchestra, famed for their laserlike clarity. In the piano music, Mitsuko Uchida brings a scary intensity to the Etudes, Krystian Zimerman flexes his muscles in the Preludes, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli brings the Images into sharp focus, and Zoltán Kocsis takes scrupulous care of the rest.
The chamber music is a mixed bag: There were better choices in the String Quartet than the Melos Quartet’s 30-year-old rendition; on the plus side, Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich turn in a hair-raising performance of the Cello Sonata. Debussy’s works for two pianos and four-hand piano, a crucial yet often overlooked part of his output, are well realized by Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky. Best of all is Claudio Abbado’s utterly beguiling recording of Debussy’s sole opera, “Pelléas et Melisande” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which brings Wagnerian depth to this mysterious creation. No anthology of this sort is perfect, but this one comes tantalizingly close.