Bach: Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066–1069

Bach: Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066–1069

As a young musician in service to aristocratic employers, Johann Sebastian Bach was expected to learn fashionable French courtly dances. Nobody knows whether he mastered their often tricky steps, but, as John Butt suggests, his Four Orchestral Suites show how well he absorbed their gestures into his music. “I think these pieces demonstrate very clearly that Bach was as interested in physical movement as he was in ‘brain and ear’ music for which he is so well-known,” he tells Apple Music. Butt and the ace period-instrument players of his Dunedin Consort bring out the full French flavor of each of Bach’s dance suites, highlighting their rich combination of grandeur and grace while imparting irresistible rhythmic energy to every movement. Butt’s sprightly speeds reflect the practical demands of dancing a courante or a minuet, which become nearly impossible at too slow a tempo. Even the set’s most familiar pieces—the “Air” from the Third Suite, the “Badinerie” from the Second, and the scintillating “Ouverture” from the Fourth—feel fresh and spontaneous. “What we’ve tried to achieve,” Butt explains, “is to show the subtlety in the very simplicity of the dance forms, but also to show the simplicity in the very virtuosity typically contained within the overtures to each of the Suites.” The approach is supported by playing that matches and occasionally surpasses the benchmark standards set by the Dunedin Consort in their equally revelatory recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. It’s impossible to remain still while listening to these performances or ignore what Butt calls the changing “gaits” and “dispositions” of Bach’s music. “There are many recordings of these pieces and Baroque dance in general,” he admits, “but we’ve tried, in particular, to explore the different moods, tempi, and emotional implications of the different types of dance.” The Dunedin Consort’s refined feeling for Bach’s fleet-footed French suites transports listeners back to a time when music and movement were inseparable. As John Butt notes, the succession of dances “help us to perceive similar rhythms and structures in much of Bach’s other music, even that which is designed for utmost devotion.”

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