Murray Perahia in Bach: The French Suites

The recent reappearance of Murray Perahia on records has been a source of deep joy. His exquisitely sculpted Bach is infinitely touching.

Murray Perahia in Bach: The French Suites

(Photo of Murray Perahia copyright Felix Broede & DG)

The recent reappearance of Murray Perahia on records has been a source of deep joy - and great relief, after an extended absence. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has been a constant companion for Perahia and, he says in an interview with Jessica Duchen in the booklet note to this release, it was Bach who offered "solace and consolation ... I studied Bach every day and it would nourish me". Perhaps there's an element of that healing nature of Bach's music in the calm beginning to the"Allemande" (the first movment) of the First French Suite in D minor (BWV 812):

Bach French Suite No. 1 in D minor (Allemande)

Think you don't know the French Suites? I bet you do:

Bach Suite No. 5 in G (Gavotte)

Probably written between 1722 and 1725 (as we will see, Perahia suggests the Sixth may be later), the French Suites present a sequence of dances, Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue, with different movements also inserted between the Sarabande and he Gigue (a pair of Menuets in the First and Second Suites, to which Bach adds an "Anglaise" in the Third; an "Air" in the Fourth, a Bourée and a Loure in the Fifth and a Polonaise, "Petit Menuet" and Bourrée in the Sixth). Within this framework, the diversity Bach creates is huge, and Perahia reflects this in his playing.

Perahia himself has prepared a set of short videos on the French Suites. Here he is, taking just under eight minutes to walk us through the Fifth. Interesting how he talks about one movement ending where we have two alternatives from Bach: he takes the higher of the two options on the repeat to give more of a feeling of completion. Perahia is so eloquent, describing the final Gigue as a "blur of joy":

Bach French Suite No. 5 in G (Gigue)

For many, the Sixth Suite (in E Minor, BWV 817) is the most enigmatic, and Perahia, in his lecture on that piece, suggests it was written much later than its siblings. Certainly he has a point; just listen to his way with the Sarabande, dignified but dreamy:

Bach French Suite No. 6, Sarabande

... and here's Glenn Gould on CBS, a very different Bach pianist, arguably more objective, drier when it comes to pedal, creating a very different web for us to get caught up in:

Same movement, Glenn Gould

Let's close with a movement from perhaps one of the lesser-known French Suites, No. 4 in E flat, BWV 815. Here's the concluding Gigue; it's easy, is it not, to hear hunting horns charging forth in the opening leaps?. Perahia gives us such joy - and buoyancy, achieved through pure rhythmic mastery:

Bach French Suite No. 4, Gigue

Recorded in Berlin in the Summer of 2013, this is one of the most significant records of piano music of recent years; those hearing the French Suites for the first time have a Master pianist as their guide.