Bach was never in France, but early in his life got to know and appreciate French music. He wrote many pieces in French style, including four French orchestral suites (also named Overtures, after their dotted opening movement). He had a particular fondness for this genre, which he inserted in works as different as The Art of Fugue, the Goldberg Variations, Cantatas BWV 20, 61, 97, 110, 119 194 - to name a few.
It has been suggested that Bach's iconical French Overture for harpsichord (Ouverture nach Französischer Art, BWV 831, 1735) could be the author's arrangement of a lost orchestral suite. For instance, musicologist Karl Geiringer writes: “Bach used as model the popular form of a French Orchestral suite preceded by a French ouverture, transposing to the harpsichord the orchestral idiom. The whole work gives the impression of an orchestral ballet, and it seems we hear the different groups of instruments chatting among themselves. To obtain a maximum of color variety, Bach prescribed a double-manual harpsichord. Repeated indications of “forte”and “piano, especially in the first and last movements, indicate clearly where Bach expected changes from the fuller sound to the softer keyboard.”
Ensemble PHOENIX has summoned composer and musicologist Alon Schab to write a version of the French Overture for strings and continuo, that would give us an idea of how this could have sounded if such original existed. He has taken the challenge, and the result is part of this off-the-beaten-track program.
Our program begins by presenting one of Bach's early adventures in the French style, the short Overture BWV 820, written for harpsichord around 1705 - when the composer was 25 years old - here offered in a version for strings and continuo by Antony Grey and Myrna Herzog.
In counterpoint to Bach's writing in French-style, we present music by the great French composer François Couperin: L'Imperiale (The Imperial - of which one movement appears also as the spurious organ piece BWV 587), a representation of Germany in music - and Les Bergeries, one of his pastoral and gallant pieces which was copied into Anna Magdalena Bach's Notebook.
The program culminates with Schab's fascinating version of Bach's French Overture BWV831, written in 1735 (30 years after Overture BWV820 just heard).