North East Post
A Voice of the Free Press
Mike Tilling
Arts Correspondent
1:01 AM 6th January 2024

Classical Music: JS Bach The French Suites

JS BachThe French Suites
French Suite No 1 in D minor BWV812 (clavichord); French Suite No 2 in C minor BWV813 (clavichord); French Suite No 3 in B minor BWV814(clavichord); Suite in E flat major BWV819 (clavichord); Suite in G minor BWV822 (harpsichord); French Suite No 4 in E flat major BWV815 (harpsichord); French Suite No 5 in G major BWV816 (harpsichord); French Suite No 6 in E major BWV817 (harpsichord); Suite in A minor BWV818 (clavichord).

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Hyperion CDA68401/2

Whenever I listen to Bach, I feel I am in the presence of a calm and civilizing intelligence that can make me a better person. I can’t be alone in this since the Voyager mission of 1977 included music by Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and Gavotte En Rondeau from Partita No. 5 in E major) and pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky to represent humanity to whatever may be out there.

Had he been alive, Mahan Esfahani’s work on the harpsichord and clavichord could well have been included as part of that ambassadorial package. Esfahani, of Iranian descent but brought up and currently living in the USA, has conducted detailed research on the various manuscripts available of Bach’s work and come up with what he believes to be the versions that Bach intended. In other words, we may be listening to the same music as heard in the Salons of Europe during the Baroque period.

Esfahani manages to bring out the logic and rationality in Bach’s work while losing none of the cool engagement that appealed so much to the values of the Enlightenment. Clearly, the majority of Bach’s music was written for liturgical purposes and was strongly influenced by his Lutheran faith, but most music lovers now take his work to be one of the greatest of human achievements, with or without the religious element.

Esfahani also extracted the abstract from Bach. I am not suggesting that the French Suites have any connection whatsoever with current painters who think that abstract means work that is incomprehensible to, well, everyone but themselves, but rather pure music that has no referent outside its own world. Bach does not seek to represent the movement of a fox running across a meadow or an angry god throwing thunderbolts; instead, he creates worlds of his own through counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, and texture.

As usual, Hyperion has done a superb job with the quality of the recording. It is for this reason, along with sound quality, virtuoso playing, and principled interpretation, that I can be confident of an uplifting experience sitting in my armchair with a glass of white wine in my hand and Bach’s music swelling from the CD player.

The committee that selected the music for Voyager seems to have got it right.