Bach’s ‘English Suites’ tackled at Phillips Collection and National Gallery of Art

March 3

Bach’s “English Suites” are among his most diverting music for the keyboard, where a delight in patterns and brilliant finger-work crowds out a severe contrapuntal approach. Bach’s encyclopedic tendencies meant that he had a plan when he grouped works into a set like this, so one gets more out of a complete performance than hearing these pieces singly. So the complete performance offered on Sunday afternoon and evening, in numerical order and split between a harpsichordist at the Phillips Collection and a pianist at the National Gallery of Art, was most welcome.

Veteran harpsichordist Anthony Newman gave the first three suites a rather run-of-the-mill performance, with not much thought given to variation in the release of sound or rhythmic manipulation. He played on a 2005 French-inspired harpsichord made by Thomas and Barbara Wolf but took advantage of little of its colorful range of sounds. Newman’s choice to use the buff stop, which gives a muted, lute-like sound, for entire movements, for example, robbed that sound of its magic by its pervasiveness.

The last three suites, hammered out by pianist Peter Vinograde on the National Gallery’s Steinway, were even less subtle in character. Vinograde took advantage of the dynamic gradations available on the modern piano, but this was a mostly loud and fast performance that bulldozed over many of the works’ finer details. While the technique was steely, the pointed accents and sweeping crescendos were not only anachronistic, in terms of the instrument for which Bach likely conceived the “English Suites,” but irritating to the ear.

This cycle of the suites ended with Bach’s motet on that chorale (BWV 227), one of the most beguiling works in the Bach oeuvre. The NGA Vocal Ensemble gave a mostly fine performance, some intonation issues in the soprano section aside, a lovely way to say good night (to our sins, pride and glory).

Downey is a freelance writer.

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