About this Recording
8.573473 - BACH, J.S.: English Suites Nos. 1-3 (arr. Montenegrin Guitar Duo for 2 guitars) (Montenegrin Guitar Duo)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
English Suites Nos. 1–3, BWV 806–808
(Arranged for two guitars by the Montenegrin Guitar Duo)


Guitarists have been enthusiastic to perform the music of J.S. Bach since the nineteenth century when the great Spanish maestro, Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) arranged single movements from the unaccompanied violin works. The art of transcription was continued by Andrés Segovia (1893–1984) who not only played, recorded and re-edited several of Tárrega’s favourite Bach pieces but also arranged the great Chaconne from the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, and performed it at his Paris début at the Salle Gaveau on 4 June 1935.

Since then guitarists have embraced far more of Bach’s music, including the ‘lute’ suites (possibly intended mainly for the lute-harpsichord, an instrument played as a keyboard but sounding like a lute), the cello suites, and even keyboard partitas. Guitar duos have extended the range further adding to their repertoire such complex musical entities as the Goldberg Variations and preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Klavier.

The English Suites is the title given to six suites for keyboard believed to have been composed (or at least collected and revised), between 1720 and the early 1730s. The title ‘English’ suites, according to J.N. Forkel (in a publication of 1801), was applied because Bach may have prepared a copy for a visiting Englishman. In fact the style of the suites is not at all English but, according to the eminent Bach scholar David Schulenberg, ‘that of French or German compositions of the previous generation’.

These suites are characterised by very different opening Préludes. English Suite No. 1 in A has a shorter Prélude than the other suites in the sequence. This Prélude begins with a quasi-improvisatory flourish before proceeding into an intricate contrapuntal exercise. The Allemande as a dance movement is, as the name suggests, of German origin. This dance is quiet and steady, not brilliant, and its four beats to a bar and gentle semiquavers give it a sense of serene stability. The Courante, its title derived from the French verb ‘to run’, is vigorous and rapid in contrast to the Allemande. In this suite both Courantes are in the French style, as opposed to the Italian Corrente with simpler textures and less complex harmonic and rhythmic movement. The doubles, variations on the preceding Courantes, are characterised by flowing quavers.

The Sarabande, a slow, stately dance, probably Spanish in origin, represents the emotional heart of the suite. This Sarabande with its elaborate ornamentation and extended melodic line may well have been influenced by the Italian adagio rather than French models of this dance. Bourrées, along with minuets and gavottes, remind us in their rhythmic simplicity of a more earthy dance, releasing us from the courtly dignity of the sarabande.

The Bourrée is a French dance, similar to the Gavotte, but quicker. It is often followed, as in this instance, by a second Bourrée in a different key, after which the first Bourrée is repeated. These two movements are longer and more contrapuntal than Bach’s earlier suites. The Gigue generates excitement, vigour, and zest with a foot-tapping rhythmic vitality as the suite comes to a dramatic culmination. The opening theme recalls that of the Prélude, and this line is inverted at the beginning of the second half in a vivid demonstration of two part counterpoint.

English Suite No. 2 in A minor begins with a longer Prélude demonstrating admirably the flexibility of the introductory prélude concept which lays down few structural rules unlike the other movements which generally adhere to specific dance patterns. Following the sheer energy of the Prélude, the Allemande comes as a gentle stream of tranquillity. The single Courante is less extended than those in Suite No. 1, the texture being that of flowing quavers.

For the Sarabande J.S. Bach put in a second example of the piece complete with agréments or embellishments, an idea which had found a precedent in Couperin’s Premier Ordre (Paris 1713). This establishes a guide to the composer’s own approach to embellishing his music. The two Bourrées offer elegant contrasts to each other in key, texture and mood, the second being more chordal and buoyant than its two-part invention-like predecessor. The Gigue differs from that of Suite No. 1 in that the second half leads back to the beginning for a repeat.

English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808, is possibly the most popular suite of the set. The Prélude contrasts chordal accompaniments against brilliant semiquavers in a manner reminiscent of Vivaldi’s concerto grosso. The Allemande differs from the previous suites in that the opening theme is in the bass. The fluent beauty of the particular composition makes this an example (if ever one was needed!), of the ideal allemande.

The Courante presents complex rhythmic patterns as Bach subtly advances the form, moulding the structure into a sonorous contrapuntal labyrinth. The Sarabande also is a magnificent vision of the possibilities of this dance taken to its most refined level. As with the previous suite, Bach has written out a more elaborately ornamented version as well as providing a (comparatively) simplified offering.

Gavotte I is contrasted against a Gavotte subtitled Musette, intended to be imitative of an instrument similar to the bagpipe. The Gigue takes us into the structure of a true fugue in a magnificent climax to one of the greatest examples of the suite form.

Graham Wade

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