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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) French Suites
Suite No. 2 in C minor BWV 813 [11:55]
Suite No. 4 in E flat major BWV 815 [11:43]
Suite No. 1 in D minor BWV 812 [12:18]
Suite No. 6 in R major BWV 817 [14:01]
Suite No. 3 in B minor BWV 814 [13:06]
Suite No. 5 in G major BWV 816 [16:22]
Zhu Xiao-Mei (piano)
rec. 2016, Mendelssohn-Saal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC30404 [79:26]
This recordng is rather special. I had though to have reached a kind of summit when I encountered Murray Perahia’s French Suites on Deutsche Grammophon (review), but as we should all know, new vistas always open up when you think you’ve reached a high point, and while this is no doubt a challenge it is also an opportunity to strike out in different directions or view your object from other perspectives.
I very much enjoyed Zhu Xiao-Mei’s Goldberg Variations (review), and Stephen Greenbank admired her Das Wohltemperierte Klavier back in 2013 (review). Handily presented on a single disc, this set of the French Suites therefore joins an already distinguished catalogue, and will no doubt be eagerly sought out by her fans. New listeners can expect a performance at the same high standard as Perahia’s, superbly recorded and a fascinating traversal of some of Bach’s best keyboard music. In terms of general comparison, Xiao-Mei is recorded a little closer, helping with her more intimate and confiding approach to these pieces. Perahia is equally sensitive, but presents a more concert-hall sound. The booklet notes for this Accentus CD take the form of an interview with Michael Mollard, and in it Xiao-Mei states that she aims for music making that is “alive as possible – to recreate a ‘live’ feeling” in the studio. In this she succeeds very well, keeping up a feel of spontaneity through rhythmic verve in the dances, their lively character and contrast not so much presented through loudness, but making a Courante very much distinct from a Sarabande while at the same time keeping an integrity of atmosphere that defines each suite.
You will notice that the ordering is different from the more usual 1 to 6. Xiao-Mei starts with the Second Suite as it enters like “a great breath of fresh air.” The ordering has been further chosen on musical grounds, elevating the relatively neglected Fourth Suite to second place, and concluding the entire programme with the “joyous Gigue” of the Fifth Suite.
With carefully placed and restrained amounts of ornamentation, Xiao-Mei’s overall approach to these French Suites has been one that brings out their essential simplicity, comparing the artist Juan Miró with “a childlike purity [ ] similar to what I hear in the French Suites. The Miró quote which sums this up is “to gain freedom is to gain simplicity,” and there is an undoubted freshness and open-air unpretentiousness about this playing that I find sincere and attractively compelling.
I will always have an affection for Glenn Goulds 1970s recording of the French Suites (review). You might think comparing Gould with Xiao-Mei would be like comparing chalk and cheese, but even with Gould’s more extreme tempi and highly personal touch I do sense a family connection in that sense of ‘simplicity’ that he projects. From memory I was expecting something far more over-heated than Xiao-Mei’s approach, but while you would never confuse the two – Xiao-Mei is for instance more prepared to use a little touch of pedal here and there, and is generally more legato in her melodic lines – I was pleasantly reminded of Gould’s involving sense of narrative. Take the great Sarabande of the First Suite, which Gould stretches to 2:50 to Xiao-Mei’s 2:15. Gould makes an expressive point out of each note, spreading left-hand chords and sprinkling in his own characteristic ornamental flourishes, but this is not melodrama. Xiao-Mei shapes phrases and takes the dynamic down at repeats, making us lean in and listen ever closer, but her reading is by no means the focussing of ever stronger lenses in a microscope. This is the same story told by two people who both appreciate the genius of the author, and who both know that the tale will not be improved by hamming-up the delivery.
Xiao-Mei is not without her quirks. The final Gigue of the First Suite hops around as if the keys have become to hot to touch, and there are one or two other examples of this nature that might take a little getting used to. If pinned down to chosing one or the other I would still take Murray Perahia as a first choice, but as I will be hanging onto my copy of Glenn Gould, so will I also not be letting go of Zhu Xiao-Mei.