J.S. Bach: French Suites, BWV 812–817
Resonus Classics (RES10163) [2 CDs]
Originating from Bach's largely halcyon years in Cöthen, the French Suites are evocative vignettes of domestic music-making chez Bach. With their vocal qualities and their open, galant textures, these works seem particularly well suited to the intimate hues of the clavichord. The recording is completed with a suite each by Froberger and Telemann – both of whose music inspired Bach.
What is a clavichord? Find out in Julian's introduction for BBC Music Magazine.
Audio samples and booklet are available at Resonus Classics
'The 'French' seem to be the least favoured on record among Bach's keyboard suites, yet also perhaps the ones most played by people in their homes – including Bach's, it is generally supposed. Julian Perkins performs them on the ever-intimate clavichord, and very sweet and delicate they sound on it. Actually he uses two clavichords, both copies of German late-18th century models: the one used for Suites Nos 1, 5 and 6 has a thin but silvery singing tone, while Nos 2, 3 and 4 are heard on an instrument with a brighter, pingier sound almost like a mandolin. The ability to play loud and soft, albeit within a very narrow and low-level range – is effectively exploited by Perkins; melodies sing over their accompaniments and the soft-curved sarabandes (the Fifth especially) are shaped with beauty and feeling. ...a well-executed and attractive release, worth investigating for its different slant on the music. Perkins includes the preludes found in some sources for Suites Nos 4 and 6, and complements Bach with fine little suites by Froberger and Telemann.'
'Taking his cue from the fact that the clavichord was by far the most common instrument for domestic music making and personal practice in Germany, Julian Perkins’ playing makes a persuasive case for recording the French Suites on the clavichord, following on from Thurston Dart’s historic 1961 recording on that instrument. This is impressive clavichord playing, highly intelligent and nuanced, with singing lines and rhythmic security. Voicing and counterpoint are beautifully controlled and repeated sections are judiciously ornamented. Perkins includes the Preludes to Suites 4 and 6 found in some sources. He also frames the suites with Froberger’s Partita no. 2 in D minor FbWV 602 and Telemann’s Suite in A major TWV 32:14 (long erroneously attributed to Bach as BWV 824), acknowledging and adeptly illustrating those composers’ influence on Bach. Perkins plays on two Peter Bavington clavichords, copies of a diatonically fretted c. 1785 instrument by Bodechtel in Nürnberg and an unfretted 18th-century German instrument, probably by Silbermann. In making this recording Perkins has done an important service to both the clavichord and to J. S. Bach. As a different take on these well-known works it can be highly recommended.'
Early Music Review
'Julian Perkins’ playing is sensitive and musical. He makes excellent use of ornaments, both realised from the score and also added improvisational ornaments, all forming an integral part of the music line, rather than being the often heard ‘add-ons’ to the texture. He also adopts an attractively free approach to interpretation, entirely appropriate given the complications of the sources of these suites. [...] I recommend turning off the lights, lighting a candle, sitting back and just letting the music flow.'
'Julian Perkins’ recording opens with a partita by one of Bach's predecessors, Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667), whose music Bach apparently studied. Its D minor key prepares the listener for Bach's opening French Suite and also acclimatises the ear to the delicate timbre of the clavichord, an hors d'oeuvre perhaps before the main course. A very tasty hors d'oeuvre though, and its expressiveness and careful attention to detail characterises Perkins' general approach. His dynamic control of two warm-toned clavichords is exemplary, and he draws the listener in to many stylish nuances. Preludes are added to Suites 4 and 6 in typical 18th-century fashion while Sarabandes provide an oasis of calm, particularly enjoyable after the busy Italian courantes of Suites 4 and 5. His ability to expose hidden melodic lines is effective, with ornamental creativity allowing for the 'occasional Perkinism'.'
Early Music Today
'These works sit perfectly on the clavichord and are here given lively yet intimate performances which are highly convincing.'
'The playing throughout displays fine musicianship and a thoughtful interpretive approach. Highlights include the many touching softer movements, and especially the Sarabande of the Froberger suite, in which Perkins rolls chords with a lutenist's sensitivity for timing and gestural sweep, bringing the movement to a close with a whisper-soft cadence. ...This is a beautifully produced recording that both Kenner and Liebhaber of the clavichord will enjoy having in their collections.'
'The recorded sound quality is excellent, with clear distinction between the two instruments. The essay by Warwick Cole provides a good overview of the primary sources, with references and links to online reproductions of the most important manuscripts, to which Perkins adds a personal note giving the performer’s perspective.
Perkins demonstrates complete rapport with the instruments and music, evoking a wide range of colors and effects. His performances are delightfully unbuttoned but never mannered, with subtly varied use of inégale, and fluidly improvised ornamentation; his rhythms are vigorous but always plastic. Altogether, this is music making of the highest order, rewarding the attentive listener at every level of detail.'
Boston Clavichord Society
'An outstanding feature of this recording is Julian Perkins' immaculate ornaments, with eloquent variations of shape and speed to suit individual contexts, using both on- and off-beat trills and mordents with differing initial note lengths – for example the lovely gradually accelerating trills in the Sarabande from Suite 6 as opposed to the more even, quicker ones in the Gigue of Suite 4.
I commend the addition to Suites 4 and 6 of preludes from later manuscripts (the latter otherwise known as No. 9 from Book II of the Well-tempered Clavier) and the inclusion of the Froberger and Telemann works instead of the more usual fillers, the BWV 818 and 819 suites. In fact I would happily buy these CDs for the Froberger alone. The beautiful tone colours, exquisite ornamentation, thoughtful use of rubato and moving changes in dynamics make it for me the most profound offering of all.'
British Clavichord Society
'...Julian Perkins is a fine musician and plays the suites elegantly.'
BBC Music Magazine
'Mr. Perkins is a player with a fine sense of line and direction. He plays with vigour or meditative lyricism in a healthy, unaffected manner, and makes lovely accents in time, whether by stretching beats or within strict time. He often adds ornaments to the repetitions and appears fond of providing flourishes to lead into a repetition or at the end of a work (cf. the conclusion of French Suite No. 5). The performer comments in the notes, ''A particular thrill associated with the French Suites is the lack of any one definitive source. ...It has allowed me creative freedom in combining different versions, adding some extra movements, varying repeats and realising chordal patterns – whilst also inspiring the occasional 'Perkinism.' '' The extra movements include, for Suite 4, the delightful little Prelude BWV 815a, its arpeggios realized here very ingeniously by Mr. Perkins. He bravely plays the E Major French Suite on the fretted clavichord, and I must compliment him particularly on his rendition of the allemande, finding and expressing the diverse flow of superficially even sixteenth notes with very elegant inflections.'
The clavichord is a rectangular keyboard instrument that initially flourished from around the early 15th century to the Classical era. Its mechanism is disarmingly simple; each key lever has a brass blade (tangent) at its end that presses up against the strings when the key is pressed down. This direct connection with the strings allows the player to control the sustain of the sound. Along with the accordion, the clavichord is unique amongst keyboard instruments in allowing the player a degree of vibrato. Something of a Cinderella of the keyboard world, the clavichord’s dulcet tones have inspired performers ranging from Oscar Peterson to András Schiff. Below, the maker-scholar Peter Bavington provides details about the two clavichords used in Julian Perkins's recording of the French Suites.
Unfretted clavichord made by Peter Bavington (London, 2015), after a late eighteenth-century German instrument probably by Johann Heinrich Silbermann
Photo: Andy Craggs
Both the clavichords used in this recording are free copies of eighteenth-century German originals. The smaller one (heard in the suite by Froberger and French Suites nos 1, 5 and 6) was made in 2008, and is based on a surviving clavichord by Johann Jacob Bodechtel (1768–1831), who worked in Nuremberg. Although this original was clearly not made during Bach’s lifetime, it is very traditional in design, and is typical of the kind of domestic clavichord that could have been found in a German musical family at any time during the eighteenth century. It is diatonically fretted, which means that for part of the compass the tangents of two adjacent notes strike the strings at different distances from the bridge, producing different notes (this works in exactly the same way as the frets on a guitar or lute, hence the term). The twelve notes of each octave can thus be obtained from only seven pairs of strings, each accidental being paired with a neighbouring natural note. This system has the advantage of reducing the load of strings bearing on the bridge, aiding its response; it also reduces the size of the clavichord and simpliﬁes the tuning process. Perhaps for these reasons, diatonically fretted clavichords continued to be made alongside the larger, unfretted type until well into the nineteenth century. The only drawback is that certain combinations of notes cannot be played simultaneously, but this is rarely a problem in these suites.
In the 2008 version, the compass was slightly extended to BB–f3. As on the original, the soundboard has two bars on its underside which pass across directly under the bridge; this, and the reﬂective cherry wood used for the case, seem to give the instrument its bright sound and quick response.
The larger clavichord (heard in the suite by Telemann and French Suites nos 2, 3 and 4) was made in 2005. It is based on an instrument in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, which is unsigned and undated but which is almost certainly the work of Johann Heinrich Silbermann (1727–1799), nephew of the famous organ builder (and friend of J. S. Bach) Gottfried Silbermann. In an unfretted clavichord like this, each string has a separate course; this makes necessary a longer bridge to accommodate the extra strings, and the front-to-back width of the instrument has to be increased to make room for a larger soundboard. The compass is larger, too: FF–f3, which implies a greater end-to-end length to accommodate the longer bass strings, but Johann Heinrich seems to have taken care to make his clavichord as short as possible: it is, in fact, scarcely longer than the Bodechtel. This has consequences for the sound and the way the instrument plays. The bass strings, for example, are quite short for their intended pitch, which makes necessary a large number of over-wound strings (40 in all), contributing a characteristically warm, dark timbre to the bass. The soundboard is deep but not long: it is in fact exactly square, which seems to be an almost ideal shape for the soundbox. Johann Heinrich used a special system of soundboard support, providing only one bar parallel to the bridge, with three strips of wood, no thicker than 1 mm, running across underneath at 45°. This is so successful that it was closely copied in the 2005 version. Very few other changes were made: the case is of walnut, like the original, with a panelled lid, here with three panels rather than the original two. Perhaps the only other signiﬁcant change is the rose in the soundboard, which is a slightly modiﬁed version of the original, made of vellum and wood veneer rather than the original card.
For this recording, both clavichords were tuned to a1 =415 Hz. The temperament on the smaller instrument (ﬁxed because of the fretting) was Bendeler III; Werckmeister III was chosen for the larger, unfretted clavichord.
Smith & Handel
Chandos (CHAN 0807)
This disc features the world-première recording of suites by John Christopher Smith – best known as Handel's second amanuensis who helped put Messiah on the map. Smith's own music shows that he was a fine composer in his own right, whose music was greatly inspired by the daredevil virtuosity found in many of Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas. Two harpsichords are used here; a single-manual harpsichord made by Mabyn and William Bailey in London in c1770, and a double-manual harpsichord after eighteenth-century Franco-Flemish models, made by Ferguson Hoey in Oxford in 1982.
Available on Amazon
'John Christopher Smith's main claim to fame is that he (like his German father, who bore the same anglicised name) acted as Handel's amanuensis. But these six suites reveal a strikingly individual and gifted composer, often reminiscent of Domenico Scarlatti. The exuberantly stylish Julian Perkins is just the man for the job and tellingly collides the work of master and servant with a Handel keyboard transcription at the start.'
Album of the Week
'Smith’s music turns out to be spirited, athletic, witty, agreeable and suitable for dancing. He was clearly a capable musician who knew his market, injecting a dolorous Larghetto for those who were suffering in love or health before winding up with a Gigue. Perkins plays with just the right dash of theatricality and, I’d guess, knowledge of his own market.'
Norman Lebrecht – Sinfini Music
'...His [Perkins's] performance is brilliant and fresh ... He’s an excellent musician and a strong advocate for this musical style... The thick booklet has scrupulous documentation of everything ... This effervescent music by a neglected composer is unlikely to get any other outing as well-prepared and sympathetic as this.'
'[Smith's] music occupies a strange sort of halfway territory between the late Baroque style and the progressive early Classical mould, and Julian Perkins captures the dichotomy of mid-18th-century England's Scarlattian obsession and the emerging rococo style in his judicious playing of Smith's Six Suites of Lessons for the Harpsichord, Op 3... These playful lessons amply repay Perkins's curiosity.'
'This is a lovely combination of unfamiliar music played by a fine musician on an original single manual (c.1770) and a modern (1982) double manual harpsichord. The use of the two instruments allows for more variety than in some recordings. The bulk of the CD consists of a premiere recording of music dating from 1755, John Christopher Smith’s Six Suites of Lessons for the Harpsichord, Op 3. This is preceded by an overture by Handel, Riccardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra. Despite loving the sound of the harpsichord I sometimes find a whole CD too much. This is not the case here. A very enjoyable performance.'
'Julian Perkins deserves praise for his initiative in bringing this music to our attention and so do those who have supported him financially and otherwise. Productions like this make much sense as they broaden our musical horizon and fill in the blank spots on the musical map. Many music-lovers will have heard the name John Christopher Smith but never any of his music. Rather than going by what is written by scholars they should listen for themselves in order to assess the quality of Smith's music. I have greatly enjoyed these suites. Yes, the influence of others is indisputable but they don't result in epigonism. Smith's suites have a character of their own. Perkins is a fine interpreter who brings out the qualities of these suites with great eloquence. He uses two beautiful harpsichords, copies of a French and an English instrument respectively. I found the English instrument especially interesting as this is a type of harpsichord one doesn't hear that often.'
'While working as Handel's amanuensis, Smith Jr. (1712–1795) was a busy composer in his own right, scoring particular success with his music for The Fairies, a concoction based on A Midsummer Night's Dream that David Garrick mounted at the Drury Lane theater. His scores sit mostly silent today, but Julian Perkins does honor to his forgotten memory through this recording of young Smith's Six Suites of Lessons for the Harpsichord, Op. 3, published in London in 1755... Smith truly shines.'
Santa Fe New Mexican
'Harpsichordist Julian Perkins has made the first recording of Smith's six suites for the instrument – a fascinating collection of works, none of which conforms to the traditional, dance-based suite structure; instead these pieces are more akin to sonatas.
Perkins has chosen two strikingly different instruments for this recording – a 'fruity' English single-manual for the suites in flat keys, and a 'powerful' French double-manual for those in sharp keys – and uses their specific characteristics imaginatively and captivatingly. The fifth suite (in G major) is utterly delightful, in particular the Rameau-tinted Minuet and variations.'
Early Music Today
'...this is a highly entertaining album of mid-18th-century harpsichord music that aims to entertain and amuse rather than evaluate. and succeeds eminately in its goals. Recommended.'
Ingenious Jestings: 8 Harpsichord Setts by James Nares
Avie Records (AV2152)
World-première recording of James Nares’s eight harpsichord suites of 1747 recorded on two original English instruments at Kew Palace, London. Includes Handel's Suite in D minor, HWV 447.
Available on Amazon
"This is a very fine debut solo recording from Perkins who has been increasingly prominent as a harpsichord player in recent times. He displays great panache in the opening bravura prelude and keeps this high standard throughout, helped by a very secure technique and a real sensibility for this music... The booklet is beautifully presented and the whole project introducing Nares’ music is a very worthwhile one."
Early Music Review
“Julian Perkins deserves nothing but praise for this undertaking. There is much complaining about the demise of the classical recording industry. One of the main reasons is the continuous release of the same repertoire. With enterprising musicians like Julian Perkins one need not fear: it is this kind of creativity which keeps the recording industry alive. It shows there is still a lot to be (re)discovered, and it also shows one shouldn't always believe those musicologists who tell us that what has been buried under the dust of history should stay there because of a lack of quality. In addition Julian Perkins plays very well: imaginative, with great rhythmic precision and fine and well-chosen ornaments. Perkins has done us a great favour by recording these fine Lessons by James Nares, by playing them so beautifully and by using these two splendid harpsichords.”
“Perkins uses a 1764 Kirckman harpsichord from the Royal Academy of Music, and while it can have a muscly tone, his skilful command of texture (along with Nares’s) ensures that it never tires the ear, while his sound stylistic sense makes the best of the music’s robust eloquence. A suite by Handel, placed halfway through the programme and played on the lighter-toned “Royal” Shudi harpsichord built for the Prince of Wales in 1740, provides a subtle gilding to this thoughtful and well presented tribute.”
“That there is more than enough quality and variety of music here to make us grateful for the chance to hear it is beyond question… [Handel’s suite, HWV 447] is an eminently worthwhile inclusion on musical grounds, and the performance is excellent. …Julian Perkins fills his performance with subtle sources of interest that cannot fail to keep the listener sympathetically alert and greatly contented – the introduction, for example, of a degree of inequality only as a six-note motif progresses, rather than applying it in a simple blanket fashion; or the integration of a decorative gesture leading back into a repeat. …The Sarabande is played beautifully – and with a little more extravagance: surely an exemplary performance. …This whole suite is an example of very graceful and intelligent playing: if Julian Perkins should decide to make an all-Handel CD, it could be confidently recommended on the strength of his playing here. ...there is much here to praise …there is no question but that this is a disc to recommend warmly …the conclusion should be obvious – it will be money well spent.”
British Harpsichord Society
"Overshadowed in his day by the towering presence of Handel, James Nares here emerges as an exhilaratingly inspired Baroque master in his own right.
''The recording also includes a suite by Handel (HWV447), neatly placed in the centre between Lessons 1–4 and 5–8. Even though it was written less than a decade before Nares’s ‘setts’, Handel’s suite sounds distinctly earlier in style, partly because of its more sophisticated textures such as are typical of Handel’s keyboard music. The inclusion of this work in the programme was an excellent idea, for it helps the listener to place Nares’s lessons in context. The ‘setts’ stand up well against one of the finest English harpsichord compositions of the time, as well as sounding more modern. The instruments used by Julian Perkins are a single-manual Kirckman harpsichord of 1764 and, even more appropriately, the double-manual royal harpsichord built by Burkat Shudi for Frederick Prince of Wales in 1740 (Handel’s suite had been written for the prince’s sister the previous year, and may have been played on this instrument). Perkins exploits the latter’s various possibilities for variation in registration with considerable skill, and his performances are thoroughly convincing. He includes all the repeats throughout the collection, often adding tasteful ornamentation in the repeat (and occasionally in the first hearing). The speeds are all well judged, with sparkling allegros but sensitive and expressive playing in movements such as the G minor Largo of Lesson 3. In the booklet the trilingual text offers ample information by Perkins about Nares and his 1747 collection, along with a lucid account of the instruments by Christopher Nobbs and a brief biography of Perkins. Finally, the back cover appropriately shows Philip Mercier’s famous painting from 1733 of the Prince of Wales making music with his sisters. This first complete recording of these works would be a worthy addition to any CD collection."
''James Nares (1715 – 1783) is something quite other and this is a release of highest importance from several points of view. His Setts of Harpsichord Lessons as given by Julian Perkins yield nothing to the harpsichord music of, say, Purcell and Handel (who is represented by one of his Suites); I dare not mention composers of the period beginning with B... Avie has nurtured an extraordinary project, aptly compared by Perkins with the support by subscription customary in the eighteenth century. He lists three columns of generous contributors, plus many organisations and notabilities who made the recording possible... The music was recorded in The Queen's Drawing Room at Kew Palace, London, and there is a large array of beautiful illustrations and artwork, with photos of the contemporary Kirkman and Shudi harpsichords played. Forget downloading; this is a delectable totality, having a 28 page booklet produced with such care as to equal the pleasure and delight brought by the music itself in the idiomatic vivacity and sensibility of these lovely performances. The sponsors will feel their money was well spent.
Dialogues: Music of Stephen Dodgson, Volume 2
Cameo Records (CAMEO2088)
Two solo clavichord suites. With Jacob Heringman and Elizabeth Kenny, lutes; Roberto Morón Pérez, guitar; Pawel Siwczak, harpsichord.
Recorded in collaboration with Stephen Dodgson, this project follows the publication of Dodgson’s clavichord suites for Cadenza Music, for which Julian Perkins was co-editor with the composer.
Available on Amazon
"Skilled and lovingly nuanced performances by Julian Perkins are played on a 1998 clavichord by Karin Richter..."
"The composer is named as co-producer of this disc, so we can be sure that the excellent recorded sound met his requirements. He will surely have been happy with the performances too, as they seem quite beyond criticism. ...remarkable keyboard players… The booklet notes are excellent. In brief, anyone interested in music of the utmost integrity, always very individual and often very beautiful, should not hesitate.”
“Apart from Herbert Howells, how many other composers in recent years have written music for this quiet and unassuming instrument? Dodgson’s First Suite, composed in 1967 and revised in 2006, is dedicated to his fellow-composer Elizabeth Maconchy. There are eight short movements, three of which are described as Fanfares. The writing is spare and seemingly undemanding but the effect is delightful. The Second Suite was composed in 1969 and was also revised in 2006. This one is dedicated to the harpsichordist Valda Aveling, and is more demanding, both musically and in its technical requirements. Each of the six movements has a title that might have been found in a collection of early keyboard music and again there are two Fanfares. The effect overall is charming and completely satisfying and Julian Perkins gives performances that reach to the heart of the music.”
International Record Review
"Clavichordist Perkins plays a Karin Richter instrument of 1998 after C. G. Hubert (1771), lent by Judith Wardman, which seems ideally suited to this music. Listeners will be struck by its sonorous, warm yet clear tone which enhances the music’s cantabile characteristics whilst bringing vibrancy to an array of rhythmic twists and turns. Julian Perkins’s performances of both Suites are characterized by an impressive attention to detail, and he succeeds in squeezing much musical juice from these succulent pieces. Using a wide range of different touches with infinite finger control, he brings a kaleidoscope of sonorities to the listener’s ear.
Suite No. 1 unfolds with a prelude-style movement, and here Julian Perkins captures an appropriately improvisatory feel, with a finely judged sense of rubato, and he makes effective use of Bebung on some of the longer left-hand notes. A reflective, thoughtful First Air displays a lovely, delicate touch, which continues in the rather plangent Plaint. In contrast, the livelier Pantomime and Greater Fanfare feature crisper rhythms, and I particularly enjoyed the sense of urgency in the frolicsome Tambourin. A subdued Last Fanfare makes a poignant end to this suite. Harmonically and rhythmically more adventurous, Suite No. 2 opens with proud dotted rhythms, recalling the baroque French overture, and is played here with commanding authority. Rhythmic vitality and invention continues in two Fanfares, with the febbroso (feverishly) instruction of the second playfully captured. Sandwiched between them are soulful melodic threads of A Dream, transporting the listener momentarily into a calmer world."
British Clavichord Society