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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suites
Suite I in D minor [8.25]
Suite II in C minor [7.18]
Suite III in B minor [8.52]
Suite IV in E flat major [7.56]
Suite V in G major [10.10]
Suite VI in E major [9.20]

Henry PURCELL (1659-1695]
New Irish Tune [1.03]
Rigadoon in C major [0.53]
Sefauchi's Farewell [2.33]
Minuet in D minor [1.25]
Ground in C minor [2.37]
Air in D minor [1.21]

William CROFT (1678-1727)
Ground [2.28]
Thurston Dart, clavichord
Rec: January 1961 (French Suites), ?.

Occasionally, one comes across individuals with a mission. This is the case with J. Martin Stafford. He has managed to save several rare, yet essential recordings from the abyss of forgetting, notably this recording by Thurston Dart.

A clavichordist and harpsichordist, most of Dart's solo recordings were of English music. He recorded five LPs of keyboard music by the great English composers, such as Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and others, on harpsichord and chamber organ. He also recorded a selection of organ music by English composers. Yet, one must bear in mind that this was all done in the 1950s, a period when early music was far more confidential than it is today.

In addition to these great recordings of English music, Dart also recorded Bach's French Suites, a selection of works by Froberger, and some pieces by Purcell and other English composers, on the clavichord. This recording is certainly unique, not only for its historical interest, but also for the instrument.

The clavichord is a small, rectangular box-like instrument, with a very simple mechanism, that was probably the domestic instrument par excellence in 17th and 18th century Germany, as well as in other countries. Its simple construction and small size made it easy to have at home, and even to carry around. It is known that Bach owned clavichords, and one can imagine that, when playing with his family, this instrument might have been used often.

But this recording is not only valuable for the above reasons. It is also one of the most moving recordings of the French suites available. The clavichord gives a musician the unique possibility of playing vibrato (known as bebung) on a keyboard instrument. This means that a performer has a much vaster palette of effects on the clavichord than on most other keyboard instruments. In spite of its limitations - it is a very soft instrument, its tone is limited because of its short strings, and its resonance is also limited because of its size - the clavichord is highly expressive.

Dart's reading of the French suites is quite a masterpiece. With judicious choices of tempo, he makes each movement sing. The slow movements take on a different emotion on the clavichord than on harpsichord - and Dart makes full use of bebung in these movements. The faster movements are lively and energetic, and Dart instils far more sensitivity into these than most harpsichordists. Some of the movements in these suites are quite playful, and Dart retains that feeling, giving them the utmost liberty and joy.

The additional pieces on this CD, by Purcell and Croft, are also excellent. The brief Purcell pieces take on a totally new character when played on the clavichord, and, as for the French suites, Dart's performance of them is impeccable.

There are some minor drawbacks to this recording, though. First of all, given that this was recorded in 1961, Dart chose to play none of the repeats in the French suites, so they could all fit on one LP. This is not a major default, but the suites are much shorter than in most recordings, and they leave this listener wanting to hear more. The only other minor problem is the fact that each suite is only one track, as opposed to being one track for each movement.

In any case, J. Martin Stafford has done an excellent job remastering these recordings - the sound is as clean as possible. He deserves kudos for saving these great recordings from oblivion.

An excellent performance, and a very good recording of a unique historical document. Beyond its interest as a historical recording, and the use of the clavichord, this is one of the finest recordings of Bach's French Suites available. (And the price is right too!) Every Bach lover should own this disc.


Kirk McElhearn


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