Notes and Editorial Reviews
English Suites Nos. 1–6
Edith Picht-Axenfeld (hpd)
CAMERATA 15117-18 (2 CDs: 137:15)
This is an odd case in that I was “warned” about this performer in between ordering the CDs for review and actually receiving them. Our intrepid editor, ever on the alert for too much negativity toward a performer, told me before he sent them to me that I was only to review them if I thought them good, since my fellow
reviewer Christopher Brodersen, in issue
34:4, had nothing good to say about her recording of the
In addition to wondering “why harpsichordists should choose to record this music” with “a gazillion versions in the catalog,” he was particularly hard on Picht-Axenfeld. “The tempos are so slow that individual movements approach one-and-a-half times the norm in length,” he wrote. “Moreover, the playing is metronomic in the extreme.”
Well, now, that’s scarcely a recommendation for good listening. To test her mettle, I decided to compare English Suites Nos. 2 and 3 with versions I already had, on piano, played by the ever-febrile Anne Marie McDermott. Now, anyone who knows McDermott’s playing knows that she is temperamentally related to Arturo Toscanini, meaning that she never met a fast tempo that she didn’t push to the outer limits of that tempo’s range, so I didn’t really expect 65-year-old Picht-Axenfeld to keep up with her. And of course she doesn’t. Her version of the Suite No. 2 is about three minutes longer than McDermott’s (20-plus minutes compared to McDermott’s 17-plus), but the Adagio is not really all that draggy, and although her tempos are strict they are not always so. There
a bit of subtle rubato here and there, and I like the fact that she uses a modern harpsichord with damper pedals to change the registration, which adds color and lightness to the repeats. In short, I like these performances, and in fact I find that in her slightly slower tempos I can follow both the melody and the counterpoint much more clearly than in performances where everything is pushed to the extremes. Listen, for instance, to the Sarabande of the Third Suite: The music sighs, and laments, and moves at a leisurely pace, yet never halts in its progress. That’s true musicianship.
Short version: Although I would never confuse her performances with those of Gustav Leonhardt (Virgin 61157), I really, really like them. And I’d recommend them to listeners who see them in a store and don’t want to bother going online to order the Leonhardt edition. If you want a more imaginative treatment of the music, Leonhardt is the way to go, but sometimes imaginative treatments cloud the texture, particularly in music as dense as Bach’s. Whatever her faults in the
Picht-Axenfeld’s reading of the English Suites is lucid, lightweight, and engaging.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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