Johann Sebastian Bach composed his so-called French Suites between 1722 and 1725 while still Kappelmeister to Prince Leopold. Although the title was a later addition and has nothing to do with its content (it is, if anything, Italian in form and convention), it does lend the collection a certain categorical charm. The first three suites are in minor keys, while the latter three are in major, leaving an invisible division to be drawn at their center. This does, in effect, create an open circle toward which one may bend an attentive ear at any point and still feel immersed in the suites’ totality.
As with his other Bach recordings for ECM, Keith Jarrett shows himself to be more than comfortable at the harpsichord, threading as he does a distinctive legato pacing into that instrument’s penchant for separation. In Jarrett’s hands, the music generally hovers in mid-tempo. He arpeggiates chords beautifully (note, for example, the Courante of Suite No. 1), approaches the more courtly dances (Allemande of Suite No. 2) with explicit grace, and puts plenty of meat on the bones of his trills (Gigue of Suite No. 1, Menuet of Suite No. 3). He also elicits a strikingly rich tone from the instrument’s middle range (Allemandes of Suite Nos. 2 and 3; Polonaise of Suite No. 6), and in others cultivates a gorgeously voluminous sound (Courante of Suite No. 2). Not surprisingly, Jarrett excels in the faster movements, and nowhere more so than in the Gigues (especially those of Suites Nos. 2, 3, and 4), yet the slower movements also convey a great humility. This isn’t merely because of his astounding virtuosity, but also because of his ability to expand the space in which he operates and because ECM highlights this expansion accordingly through attentive recording. Suite No. 4, with its touching Sarabande and luscious Air, provides some of the most varied atmospheres within any one suite. Suite No. 5 is another rich bouquet, its Allemande perhaps the most exquisite moment of the entire set. The Courante is wonderfully syncopated, while the Gavotte delights with its circuitous melody. The Gigue here is one of the album’s brightest highlights, combining a range of techniques in a spirited display of Shepard scale-like denouement. The Courante of Suite No. 6 flies off Jarrett’s fingers with ease, and the stately Gigue of the same brings everything to a masterfully contrapuntal conclusion.
On the whole, Jarrett performs splendidly. His technique is consistent, impassioned, and stripped to its essentials. These works may abound with courtly flair, but they also break from any of the restrictions that the circumstances of their composition might imply into moments of sheer enchantment. These suites are emotional endeavors through and through, and though they may not always be as consistently enthralling as some of Bach’s “heavier” works for keyboard, they duly remind us that it is never simply the artist’s responsibility to render such music captivating, but also ours as listeners to realize that not all music has to be in order to work its way into our hearts.