Friday 7 August 2020

Engaging dexterity: Bach's English Suites from the young Italian harpsichordist Paolo Zanzu

Bach English Suites; Paolo Zanzu; Musica Ficta
Bach English Suites; Paolo Zanzu; Musica Ficta

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 August 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Using a modern copy of a harpsichord by a maker known to Bach, this new recording of Bach's English Suites from a young Italian harpsichordist is a fine way to explore Bach's earliest major keyboard work

Like much of Bach's music, one can use the word probably a lot when writing about his English Suites. We know little about when or why they were written, and even the origins of the name are something of a surmise. If they were indeed Bach's first major keyboard suites then they represent a remarkable marking of his territory, which would be explored in further keyboard suites leading to the magisterial late large-scale keyboard works. Players have recorded them on both piano and harpsichord on this new disc from Musica Ficta the young Italian harpsichord player Paolo Zanzu performs them on a 1995 copy of a 1735 two-manual instrument by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753), an organ-builder, harpsichord and piano maker based in Dresden who had a number of documented interactions with Bach.

The suites were not printed in Bach's lifetime, but a number of copies survive including one in the hand of his son Johann Christian Bach, and another in the hand of his friend and disciple Heinrich Niklaus Gerber, and thankfully there are no major editorial discrepancies between them. One manuscript of an early version of the Suite in A major refers to it as Prelude avec les Suites. It is from JC Bach's copy that we get Fait pour les Anglois, which may refer to the suites being written for a potential English patron. Though it is conceivable that the title may refer to the fact that Bach drew inspiration for the suites from the harpsichord suites of Charles Dieupart (1667-1740).

Certainly Bach owned a copy of Dieupart's harpsichord suites, and Bach's English Suites follow Dieupart's structure of a regular sequence of French dances (though Bach replaces the ouverture with an Italian prelude), and Dieupart's suites were best known in England. But it all seems a bit contrived, and we will never know for certain. Similarly, other factors have to be used when deciding the date. The CD booklet suggests that they were written in around 1720 (earlier has also been suggested) whilst Bach was working in Köthen, at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. A lot of Bach's instrumental music dates from this period (the violin Sonatas and Partitas, the Cello Suites, the French Suites, the original versions of his orchestral suites). However, Christoph Wolff in his biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician dates them to earlier, to the end of Bach's time in Weimar where he was director of music, but fell out of favour in 1717. 
This earlier date would assign them to the period when Bach's fame was sufficient that he had a keyboard contest with the French harpsichordist Louis Marchand in Dresden. Though the contest was aborted, Bach did play in Dresden and was exposed to the rich musical life at the court. If the English Suites date from this earlier period, then we can imagine him playing some of them.
Paolo Zanzu
Paolo Zanzu
However, if we take the later date then the origins of the suites is equally plausible. For a small court, the capelle at
Köthen was moderately distinguished as a little before Bach joined the court (in 1717), a group of musicians from Berlin (made unemployed by King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia dissolving his father’s court capelle) joined the Köthen capelle. And as the music loving Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen was a Calvinist, the music at court was secular and largely non-vocal, Bach wrote a significant amount of instrumental music during this period. And of course, there is nothing to say that the music did not assemble over a period. 
Clearly the early version of the first suite might date from the Weimar period, with the others gradually appearing. Like much else in Bach, origins and original structure are unclear, all we can do is listen to the music.
Bach structured each of the English Suites similarly, with Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Galanterie and Gigue, a structure he would use in a number of different suites. But he seems to have been experimenting with the Preludes, and apart from that in the first suite these start to resemble the opening movements of Italian concertos, complete with the structural alternation between solo and tutti. By the sixth suite, the opening movement is nearly eight minutes long.

The harpsichordist on this disc, Paolo Zanzu began his studies in Italy, following this with time at the Paris Conservatoire and at the Royal Academy of Music, and he was a prizewinner at the Bruges International Harpsichord Competition in 2010. He has been assistant to both William Christie and to John Eliot Gardiner, and in 2017 founded his own ensemble Le Stagioni.

He plays Bach's suites with a lively wit and a fine sense of articulation, I was rather taken with the vibrant sound of the harpsichord and Zanzu uses it to give us a wide range of colours. On a purely technical basis, the recording surrounds the harpsichord with quite a strong acoustic but the harpsichord action does not register strongly. This is not one of those harpsichord recordings where you can almost feel the texture of the instrument, thankfully.

The preludes are attacked with a nice sense of fluidity and rhetoric, whilst the dances often have an élan to them. The Allemandes are often graceful, the Courantes lively, the Sarabandes stately and sometimes grave, the Gavottes and Bourrèes perky, whilst the Gigues often go some distance from the basic dance, yet we never quite forget that these are dances, but Zanzu is not over constrained by the dance forms. 

Zanzu seems to have no particular axe to grind, and paces the suites well, allowing the preludes to unfold with discreet virtuosity (and the later ones are virtuosic) then leading us through the various dances. Throughout he plays with engaging dexterity, and he clearly delights in Bach's imagination, and there is a freshness and vitality to the performance. Perhaps one would not want to sit down and listen to all six suites at a sitting, but I can assure you that if you do so, then Zanzu's style does not tire and his performances remain engaging.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1739) - English Suites Nos 1-6 [130:40]
Paolo Zanzu (harpsichord)
German harpsichord by Anthony Sidey and Frederic Bal (1995) after an instrument by Gottfried Silbermann (1735)
Tuning: 405hz
Temperament: Silbermann
Recorded 1-2 July 2017, 10-11 October 2018
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