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Bach: The French Suites / Alessandra Artifoni

Bach,J.s. / Artifoni,Alessandra
Release Date: 03/26/2013 
Label:  Dynamic   Catalog #: 757  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni
Number of Discs: 1 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews



BACH French Suites, BWV 812–817 Alessandra Artifoni (hpd) DYNAMIC 757 (2 CDs: 90:44)


It always gives me pause when I encounter an artist new to me and, upon searching the Internet for some biographical background, I find next to nothing. Alessandra Artifoni has no official website and only a number of links pop up—some in Italian only—to sources for this 2012 set of Bach’s French Suites . A one-paragraph bio-blurb in the Read more enclosed booklet doesn’t tell us much either. She was born in Florence in 1967, so at 46 she’s not fresh out of the conservatory or just off the competition circuit. She studied organ and harpsichord in Italy, and then spent 10 years in Switzerland furthering her studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. According to the note, Artifoni has made several CDs and radio recordings, but I wasn’t able to find any of them listed beyond this Dynamic release, not even on Amazon’s Italian branch. So, here we have an artist approaching 50, who, for all practical purposes, emerges from nowhere to give us a recording of Bach’s complete French Suites.


How does Artifoni fare? Quite well in fact. She makes her case for these pieces by adopting just tempos, dutifully observing repeats, making clear and precise distinctions between the various embellishment types that appear in the scores, and exhibiting no quirky mannerisms. Moreover, Artifoni’s performances are further enhanced by a richly voiced two-manual harpsichord of exceptional clarity and beauty of tone. It was built in 1997 by Tony Chinnery after a circa 1702 harpsichord by Berlin maker Michael Mietke (?1656/71–1719). Records indicate that Mietke delivered a harpsichord to the court at Köthen in 1719 on the recommendation of Bach, and that it was likely the instrument Bach played in a performance of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.


Chinnery lives and works in a villa just north of Florence, and this particular harpsichord from his workshop sparkles with diamond-like glints without any hint of glare or harshness across and between its two evenly matched keyboards. It’s absolutely ideal for these suites, enabling Artifoni to clearly resolve Bach’s linear writing.


Many famous players, of course, have put their individual stamps on these works, performing them on piano as well as on harpsichord. But among just harpsichord versions, the catalog beckons, in no particular order, with entries by Helmut Walcha, Huguette Dreyfus, Ton Koopman, Christophe Rousset, Kenneth Gilbert, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, Gustav Leonhardt, Bob van Asperen, Davitt Moroney, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, and Masaaki Suzuki. I don’t have all of them and haven’t even heard some of them, but of those I do have and/or have heard, I’m comfortable in saying that Alessandra Artifoni can stand with the best of them.


Admittedly, she is not as varied or imaginative in her approach as are some—for example, she doesn’t make much use of different stops to provide contrast in repeated sections, as does Dreyfus, or insert creative embellishments of her own making along the way, as does Rousset—but she is due credit for playing the notes as Bach wrote them, or at least how we think he wrote them, which brings me to one last, if essentially unimportant point about Artifoni’s or Dynamic’s sequencing of the suites on these two discs.


Except for a few movements of these pieces which found their way into Anna Magdalena’s Clavierbüchlein in Bach’s own hand, no autograph scores of the French Suites exist. Not even the title is Bach’s; it first appears in a 1762 treatise by German musicologist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718–1795). Because of this, later copies and editions took it upon themselves to publish the suites in no particular agreed upon order.


As a result, many players present the suites in numerical order, one through six, which is actually an artifact of their BWV numbers. Since the BWV catalog assigned 812 to the Suite in


D Minor, it became No. 1; 813, assigned to the Suite in C Minor, became No. 2, and so on. But not all players adopt this schema, some preferring to present the suites in some alternate order that makes sense to them or to the record producer laying them out. Just for grins, here’s Artifoni’s sequence compared to Rousset’s.
D Minor C Minor B Minor E?-Major G Major E Major
812 813 814 815 816 817
Artifoni (order) 5 2 4 1 3 6
Rousset (order) 5 2 6 1 4 3


Whether there’s any significance to the fact that Artifoni and Rousset both begin their sets with the E?-Major Suite (BWV 815) followed by the C-Minor Suite (BWV 813), or whether it’s purely coincidental I don’t know, but if there’s a desire to devise some plan based on keys, Bach didn’t make it easy. There’s no obvious formula I can see that would result in a complementary or symmetrical structure. Rousset begins in E?-Major and ends in E Major, two keys that may be adjacent to each other on the keyboard but are a universe apart in terms of tonal relationships. Artifoni also begins in E?-Major but ends in B Minor, a tonal relationship of an augmented fifth (or diminished sixth) that would have taken the curls right out of Bach’s wig. So, one must conclude that since no order makes sense, any order will do.


The more I listen to Aritifoni’s French Suites the more I like them. They won’t displace other favorites, chief among which are Rousset and, with apologies to any elitists who may happen upon this review—I’m sure there are none among Fanfare ’s readers—Keith Jarrett, whose ventures into Bach, I think, are generally underappreciated. Anyway, Artifoni’s new release is highly recommended.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1. French Suite no 6 in E major, BWV 817 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1724; Leipzig, Germany 
2. French Suite no 5 in G major, BWV 816 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1724; Leipzig, Germany 
3. French Suite no 4 in E flat major, BWV 815 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1724; Leipzig, Germany 
4. French Suite no 3 in B minor, BWV 814 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1724; Leipzig, Germany 
5. French Suite no 2 in C minor, BWV 813 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1724; Leipzig, Germany 
6. French Suite no 1 in D minor, BWV 812 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Alessandra Artifoni (Harpsichord)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1724; Leipzig, Germany 

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