Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suites
No. 1 in D minor BWV 812 [16:45]
No. 2 in C minor BWV 813 [15:56]
No. 3 in B minor BWV 814 [16:43]
No. 4 in E-flat major BWV 815 [14:46]
No. 5 in G major BWV 816 [18:34]
No. 6 in E major BWV 817 [16:18]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Suite in C major, K.399 (1782) and Gigue in G major, K.574 (1789) [15:07]
Peter Hill (piano)
rec. 5-8 July 2015, University Concert Hall, Cardiff.
DELPHIAN DCD34166 [64:14 + 50:02]

I remain a great fan of Peter Hill’s Well Tempered Clavier on the Delphian label (reviews here of Book 1 and Book 2), and if you have already heard these then you will already know what to expect from this recording of The French Suites.

Hill’s touch in Bach is very much a ‘chamber-music’ experience rather than one for larger concert venues. That said, his sound is of the sort which would carry much further than you might expect. Poetic and confiding, Hill’s piano is made to sound sympathetic with 18th century aesthetics rather than the symphonic concert arenas of the 19th and 20th – those fields in which the modern Steinway has been designed to be competitive.

Sublimely crafted beauty is where we begin and end with this set. Even where drama might seem to be called for there is control and reserve aplenty. Many pianists take the final Gigue of the First Suite as a call for theatricality, Andrea Bacchetti’s Sony recording being a case in point, and none the worse for that as an alternative view. Hill retains his sense of proportion, balancing those dotted rhythms against the antique bustle of the earlier Courante. That gorgeous Sarabande is of course the heart of this suite, and Hill’s sustained performance sings with mystic devotion without turning the movement into an uphill dirge. Hill takes a measured approach in general but is by no means always slow, or certainly doesn’t sound slow in something like the Courante of the Second Suite. András Schiff is more rapid here in his Decca recording, but with a greater tendency towards rubati and wider dynamic extremes gives his Bach a more romantic feel than Hill. While on the subject of rubato and expressive ‘lift’ to notes and phrases I came across Ivo Janssen’s complete Bach box while searching through various versions online, and was disturbed to hear him putting irritating little rhythmic stretches in all over the place in his French Suites, so I’m glad I avoided that when it came out in 2011.

Peter Hill’s playing has that natural sense of breathing and flow which pretty much removes expression from the thought processes while listening, by which I mean it is avoided as a technical layer and becomes integrated into the music in ways which make performer and composer somehow inseparable. There is a lack of complication here which allows you to sit back and enjoy in the knowledge that you are in safe hands. Take the two-part Allemande that opens the Third Suite: no need for much embellishment, no great expressive statements to deliver, just Bach’s refined counterpoint in its purest form. There are arguments to be had about tempi in this and other movements of course. Andrei Gavrilov on his admirable Deutsche Grammophon recording comes in at 2:25 to Hill’s leisurely 3:39 in this movement, but then Hill replies with a Courante at 2:13, running fairly close to Gavrilov’s 1:56 and winning in the contrast stakes. Hill is frequently less flashy than his rivals, but usually with good reason.

Peter Hill goes into some detail on each suite in his excellent booklet notes for this release, and points out the Suite in C, K.399 “epitomises Mozart’s fascination with baroque music”, making its choice as a filler by no means a strange one. The transition from Bach to Mozart is distinctive but by no means shocking. Hill has completed this four-movement K-number with the Gigue in G, K.574 written in Leipzig in 1789 while steeped in the atmosphere of Bach’s Thomaskirche. Mozart’s counterpoint has an exploratory quality which wanders into territories for which Bach would no doubt have been keen to point out alternative solutions, but that final Gigue is indeed a tour de force that takes us through much of the chromatic scale in under two minutes.

Peter Hill is to Bach what Dave McKenna was to jazz when it comes to the piano. His amicable and unpretentious playing fills me with a warm fuzzy feeling and leaves me happy to be alive, and you can’t get much better than that.

Dominy Clements

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