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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1 
English Suite No 1 in A major BWV 806 [28:32]
English Suite No 2 in A minor BWV 807 [21:05]
English Suite No 3 in G minor BWV 808 [20:59]
CD 2
English Suite No 4 in F major BWV 809 [21:59]
English Suite No 5 in E minor BWV 810 [23:29]
English Suite No 6 in D minor BWV 811 [31:51]
Ketil Haugsand (harpsichord)
rec. 23-26 April (CD 1) and 7-10 May 2012 (CD 2), Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne.
SIMAX CLASSICS PSC1329 [72:46 + 77:26]

Ketil Haugsand has already established a strong reputation via his recordings on the Simax label, including a Bach Goldberg Variations, the Six Partitas, and discs of Rameau and Forqueray. Looking at the catalogues these days, and it seems we have long ago reached the situation in which there are more piano versions than harpsichord, so Ketil Haugsand’s recording goes a little way towards redressing this balance.
 
In terms of references I’ve re-acquainted myself with Haugsand’s former teacher Gustav Leonhardt on Virgin Classics, whose performances – although lacking in repeats – to me seem to walk that line between understated poise and rich technical assurance also much in evidence in his Well-Tempered Clavier, of which Leonhardt’s is still one of my favourites on harpsichord. A more recent and very fine recording by Richard Egarr on the Harmonia Mundi label is a more direct competitor to Haugsand. Egarr plays a Katzman instrument which superficially sounds more mellifluous that the more ringing tones of the 1985 harpsichord by Martin Skowroneck used here. The results may also have something to do with the recorded perspective which is a little closer for Haugsand, the acoustic playing its part in the background rather than as a more inclusive participant in Egarr’s sound. In terms of listening for longer periods the Harmonia Mundi recording wins, but not by a huge margin. This Simax set is also beautifully produced, though will sound more forgiving through less brightly balanced systems.
 
In terms of performance I have enjoyed Haugsand’s playing immensely. He teases with little expressive rubati in the slower movements and creates convincing French style in the Courante. There is substantially more ornamentation going on in the Sarabandes, for instance of the First Suite BWV 806, which may or may not appeal quite so much. This and the spreading of chords is all part of a performance style which may well represent something with which Bach would have been familiar, and it certainly works on harpsichord in a way it never could on the piano. Ketil Haugsand writes his own comment on recording the English Suites, describing with disarming honesty the “awesome and challenging” nature of some of the movements, and how “coming of age has taken away a lot of prejudice and a tedious need for pre-fabricated ‘assumed correctness’ – resulting in a freer musical treatment” of this music. Haugsand works on the basis of Bach’s inevitable awareness of the manner of French players of his time, and indeed the spirit of Couperin is often quite close to the surface, heard here with more clarity through Haugsand than many others.
 
Why call these the English Suites with all this French influence going on? Peter Watchorn’s booklet notes are headed with a quote from J.N. Forkel’s 1802 writings on Bach’s Life and Works, “…because the composer made them for an Englishman of rank.” Whatever the reason for their enigmatic title these are of course keyboard masterpieces of the foremost quality, and to my mind Ketil Haugsand rises to their challenges with great verve and character. It’s always swings and roundabouts with comparisons and I admire both Egarr and Haugsand, but comparing the ‘swing’ which that latter gives to the Prèlude of the Fourth Suite BWV 809 makes Egarr sound positively rushed. There is an up-beat sense of joy in many of these movements which Haugsand brings out superbly, such as with his fine articulation of the Courante in the same suite. He is not averse to making his dance movements dance-like, though they remain entertainments for the mind rather than the body.
 
Whatever else, these are superb and thoughtful performances based on long experience and the most heartfelt and forthright sincerity. They will suit enthusiasts of Bach played on the harpsichord very well indeed.
 
Dominy Clements

Experience Classicsonline