Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
Forgive a personal reminiscence to give some context. I first discovered Joanna MacGregor as a contemporary classical artist with albums such as 'Play' (2001) and 'Neural Circuits' (2002) and I picked up her version of Bach's 'French Suites' as part of a buy two get one free offer (remember them?) at my local record-shop (ditto). At the time I was not ready for Bach's cool and, to my ears at least, calculated approach to music: all head, no heart. But, dear reader, I grew older and, I like to think, wiser and have come to realize that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is indeed one of the greats. Bach's 'French Suites' (BWV812 - 817) are Bach at his lightest. The works were written for clavichord but are well suited for harpsichord and pianoforte or indeed fortepiano and seem to have been composed for home use. We hear a great composer relaxing into an almost throwaway set of simple pieces, perhaps as a break from his relentless production of church music. So we hear Bach with his guard down and what a joy it is. Of course instrumental music written for dancing cannot be explicitly Christian but so much of Bach's character shines through that we can glimpse his underlying belief in a creator God who makes everything and sees that it is good. The French Suites are charming miniatures: the six on this album lasting a combined total of 78 minutes. Each opens with an "Allemande" and ends with a "Gigue" and each runs as smoothly and as regularly as clockwork. Even when off duty, so to speak, Bach's mind was that of a mathematician. But, more importantly, each piece is full of joy. Bach could not write dull music if he tried and for dance music he rises to the occasion. Joy is one of the Christian virtues and here Bach overflows with it. If you do not find yourself smiling and tapping your feet as you listen to this suite please check that your ears are attached to your head. There is a multiplicity of recordings of the 'French Suites' to explore by many musicians of great repute on a variety of keyboards. Joanna MacGregor (born 1959) is now Professor Joanna MacGregor, OBE. She recorded this album at Snape Maltings in 1993 for, I think, the now defunct Collins Classics label. It was re-mastered and re-issued on her own Sound Circus label in 2003 and remains in catalogue and also available to download. There are many other sides to Johann Sebastian Bach but this hour and a bit in his company is very pleasant and, shall we say, less demanding them some of his more revered works.
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