A versatile musician of enormous vitality whose repertoire ranges from Monteverdi to Gilbert and Sullivan, Richard Egarr is a harpsichordist and conductor best known for his performances of Baroque music, whether as Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music or as a keyboard soloist with a particularly distinguished series of Bach recordings (mostly made for Harmonia Mundi), including all the major solo harpsichord works and concertos. After studying music at Cambridge, he studied with Gustav Leonhardt, and believes that Baroque music should set the senses on fire. In an interview with the Glasgow Herald he said: “You only have to read a tiny bit about what music meant to people in the 17th century, about the way people reacted, to know this was supposed to be seriously emotional stuff. There are so many examples of people bursting into tears. Music was a passionate thing. Why should we soften the edges now?” His Phillips Music recital is comprised of three Bach Partitas and one French Suite.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):
Partita in B-Flat Major, BWV 825
Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828
French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830
Richard Egarr brings a joyful sense of adventure and a keen, enquiring mind to all his music-making - whether conducting, directing from the keyboard, giving recitals, playing chamber-music, and indeed talking about music at every opportunity. Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music since 2006, Egarr is also Associate Artist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He has a flourishing career as a guest conductor with orchestras such as London Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw and Philadelphia Orchestra.
This season Egarr makes his debut with Finnish Radio Symphony, St Paul Chamber, Utah Symphony and Melbourne Symphony, and returns to the Seattle Symphony, NDR Hanover, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Residentie Orkest, and Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. He also returns to the Handel and Haydn Society Boston for two weeks.
Early in his tenure with AAM Egarr established the Choir of the AAM, and operas/oratorios lie at the heart of his repertoire; current plans with the AAM include a Purcell opera cycle at the Barbican Centre where they are an Associate Ensemble. He made his Glyndebourne debut in 2007 conducting a staged version of St Matthew Passion. Egarr is a lasting inspiration to young musicians, maintaining regular relationships at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, Britten Pears Foundation, and the Netherlands Opera Academy (La clemenza di Tito, Le nozze di Figaro and Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino). He is a Visiting Artist at the Juilliard School in New York.
Egarr continues to play solo recitals across the world, with concerts this season including Wigmore Hall, Bozar, and Carnegie Hall as part of a North American tour. His extensive discography on Harmonia Mundi includes solo keyboard works by JS Bach, Handel, Mozart and Louis Couperin, with JS Bach Partitas to be released in February 2017. His long list of recordings with the Academy of Ancient Music includes seven Handel discs (2007 Gramophone Award, 2009 MIDEM and Edison awards), and more recently JS Bach's St John and Matthew Passions on the AAM's own label. In 2015 he conducted a sold out performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at Edinburgh International Festival, recorded live and released on Linn Records in 2016 to enthusiastic reviews.
Egarr trained as a choirboy at York Minster, at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, and as organ scholar at Clare College Cambridge. His studies with Gustav and Marie Leonhardt further inspired his work in the field of historical performance.
Johann Sebastian Bach:
Partita No 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828
French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830
Bach’s six keyboard Partitas have a special place in his output: few of his works were published during his lifetime but these were the works he chose to publish as his Opus 1. After a successful career in Cöthen, Bach became Cantor of St. Thomas, Leipzig, in the spring of 1723 and at first his workload was exceptionally demanding as he was required to compose weekly cantatas for performance either in St. Thomas or the sister church of St. Nicholas. Bach, however, was eager to start leaving a legacy in printed form and he had, over several decades, developed a reputation as an outstanding performer on keyboard instruments (in a contest in 1717 with the French virtuoso Louis Marchand, Bach was judged the winner). He had recently completed the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722) and his predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722) had also been a noted keyboard player. Kuhnau was an important influence on Bach’s keyboard Partitas, providing the model for them. In 1689 and 1692, he had published his Neuer Clavier Übung, each comprising seven Partien or Partitas (the second set also included a sonata), which were essentially suites of dances preceded by preludes. This was the model Bach adopted for his own Partitas and he also borrowed Kuhnau’s collective title. The publication of the First Partita (BWV 825) in 1726 was done at Bach’s own expense and it was announced in the Leipzig press on November 1. The title page of this edition (printed for Bach by the Nuremberg engraver, Balthasar Schmid) reads: “Keyboard Practice, consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and other galanteries, composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister to His Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Partita I. Published by the Author. 1726.” The individual Partitas were published over the following five years and in 1731 they were reissued, again by Bach himself, as a set of six in a single volume with the collective title of Clavier Übung and with the designation “Opus I.” Though they were among Bach’s last sets of keyboard suites they were the first to be published and as such they marked an important landmark in his career—something the composer himself clearly recognized.
These were demanding new works that required expert players. When Bach wanted to disseminate copies of his newly-published Partitas, he sent them not to any of the usual retail outlets but to colleagues such as Christian Petzold in Dresden and Georg Böhm in Lüneberg. The significance and difficulty of the Partitas was recognized by contemporary commentators. As early as 1731, the theorist Johann Mattheson wrote in 1731: “'Let a student of art compare [a simple aria] with a suite ... from Kapellmeister Bach’s Partitas, and he will easily find out the difference. Anyone who ventured to read them at sight would be undertaking something very foolhardy even if he were the arch-harpsichordist himself.” Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote in his biography of Bach (published in 1802) that the Partitas “caused quite a sensation among his contemporaries in the world of music; such splendid keyboard compositions had never previously been seen or heard. Whoever learnt to perform any of these pieces to a high standard could make his fortune in the world.” They are, indeed, the unlikeliest “Opus 1:” not only are they Bach’s final word on the keyboard suite, but they are also the most varied, technically challenging and intellectually rewarding of them. They are one of the pinnacles of Bach’s integration of popular dance forms into music of the highest artistic value, drawing together French and Italian influences into works that are crafted with exquisite perfection.
The First Partita establishes the structure that is broadly the same for all the Partitas: a flowing Prelude, followed by an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, two Minuets, and a final Gigue. Much of the music here has a bucolic quality, the main themes are often based around arpeggios and the contrapuntal mastery is lightly worn. The Fourth Partita, the manuscript of which is dated 1728, is the grandest of the six, opening with a splendid French Overture (a slow section dominated by dotted rhythms, and a faster section including elaborate contrapuntal working out of the ideas) which recalls Bach’s orchestral suites in terms of its scale and seemingly unstoppable momentum. The expansive Allemande that follows is intimate and thoughtful, one of the supreme examples of Bach’s ability to reinvent the forms and conventions of a dance for the most tender and lyrical expressiveness. The Courante is full of breezy broken chords and propulsive rhythms and is followed by three shorter movements that are sharply contrasted: the Aria is, as its title suggests, a song-like piece in which a melody in the right hand is, for the most part, supported by a steady bass line in the left (though as this is Bach, even in this relatively simple movement there are moments when the lines intermingle ingeniously). The Sarabande has a remarkable sense of freedom and in places the music seems to enter a kind a rapturous dream world. The Minuet is more straightforward and it precedes the extraordinary Gigue with which Bach ends the Partita: written in the unusual time signature of 9/16 it begins with a fugal idea that worked out with the most joyous control of complex counterpoint (eventually combined with a second idea) to bring this large-scale work to an exhilarating close.
Starting with a brilliant flourish, the Toccata of the E minor Partita that gives an indication of what is to follow: the final Partita is the most daring and dramatic of the set. It was already composed by 1725 but Bach subjected it to a good deal of revision before publication. After the improvisatory freedom of the first section, the central part of the Overture is an elaborate and often highly chromatic fugue to which Bach adds a postlude based on the opening material. A fluent Allemande is followed by a Corrente (the Italian form of Courante) marked by cross rhythms and brilliant figuration. The Air is based on an idea derived from fragments of scales and is notable for its constant movement in eighth notes. The Sarabande—with its echoes of the dotted rhythms from the start of the Overture—comes as a complete change: this music of formidable solemnity and imposing power. Much lighter dotted rhythms mark the short “Tempo di Gavotta” that precedes the final Gigue. In this last movement, Bach opens with a chromatic, rather serpentine fugal idea, that subsequently weaves around itself in the most beguiling way, while there is also bold use of dissonance.
The “French Suites” were so named after Bach’s death, but the title stuck and by 1802, when Forkel published his biography of the composer, he claimed that they were known as French Suites “because they are written in the French manner.” In fact, even though Bach knew Couperin’s music well and admired it (he copied some of his harpsichord pieces), the “French Suites” are, if anything, Italian rather than French in terms of their design (despite several of the dance movements having French origins). Bach himself called them simply “Suites for the Harpsichord.” They were composed during Bach’s years in Cöthen, a few years before the Partitas: the earliest manuscript copies of movements from the suites in Bach’s hand are to be found in the book of keyboard pieces he compiled for his wife Anna Magdalena, which is dated 1722, the year after they married. The Fifth Suite in G Major opens with an easy-going Allemande and is followed by a vigorous Courante much of which is a kind of highly animated two-part invention. The Sarabande is a finely judged combination of simplicity and restrained expressiveness and it is followed by two more energetic movements: a sprightly Gavotte and Bourée. The slower Loure is based on the falling motif heard at its opening. The Gigue is a dazzling fugal movement with which the work is brought to a scintillating close.
-Nigel Simeone, 2018