Bach: The English Suites BWV806-811

CD cover of Paolo Zanzu playing Bach's English Suites on harpsichord

Paolo Zanzu harpsichord
130:40 (2 CDs)
Musica Ficta MF8032/3

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This recording of the English Suites by Paolo Zanzu, the young Italian/French harpsichordist, appears to be his debut solo Bach recording. A well-known and trusted collaborator in music projects of a wide variety, Zanzu teaches at the Brussels Conservatoire, and is the founder of Le Stagioni. He posts an impressive list of the people and groups with whom he has played and to whom he has acted as assistant director, including Bill Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi 450 project and the English Baroque Soloists, in the very brief liner notes in French, English and Italian.

He plays with a mature rhythmic flexibility, and I found myself warming to him the more I listened. As you might expect, his playing is not just note-perfect but carefully prepared, and the instrument is well-suited to the complex English Suites. It was built after a historic instrument of c. 1730 from the school of Gottfried Silbermann by Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal of Paris in 1995, with 8’ & 4’ on manual 1, and 8’ with harp and lute stops on manual 2. It is tuned at A=405hz in a Silbermann temperament.

The registration possibilities of the instrument are very distinctive. The upper manual’s 8’ is pretty uncompromising in tone, and when used with the lute (and harp?) stop in the 2nd Bourrée of the First Suite, for example, is not only extremely rustic but bordering on the unpleasant. It reminds me of the coarseness of some rustic dances in the Brueghel mode!

This is presumably intended, as the rest of the Suites swing along with that fluency and attention to the patterning of threes and fours in the groups of quavers and semi-quavers that reveal how well aware he is of the very complex interplay of rhythmic nuance that is so characteristic of Bach. This maturity only comes to a secure, established and confident player who is at ease with himself as well as with the Bach. This is an enormously musical performance of a complex work which is not as frequently recorded as it might be.

I would urge those who do not have an up-to-the-moment recording of the English Suites on a characterful instrument to consider this one, played by a real musician who knows how to stroke life out of an instrument rather than batter it into submission.

David Stancliffe