Top Ear

Gavrilov’s French Suites

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Leonard Ip writes [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]

This recording of Bach’s 6 French Suites was recorded in October 1993, almost the last recording Gavrilov made before he entered his period of “demise” in the 90s. During that time he also recorded a famous Goldberg Variations for DG, one that I personally like a lot. Richter used the word “diabolical” to describe Gavrilov’s genius, and I think that is a very apt description: I don’t know how Gavrilov practises or trains his pianism behind the back of his audience, but I do know that when he does play in front of an audience, you just feel that he can seemingly play everything without needing to even think about it, and his playing is so astonishing, as if he was possessed. [Jeremy’s note: Listeners unfamiliar with Gavrilov’s art are advised to watch his Scriabin Etude Op. 42 No. 5 on Youtube.] On the contrary, his Bach is very restrained and organized, and even if there is a slight sense of neuroticism in his Goldberg, this recording of the French Suites can be considered very rational. Gavrilov’s world-class fingerwork is still evident, but it seems that his playing has been restrained by the strict structure and stylistic parameters of the music. His pace is perfectly steady and every line is distinctly audible, and whatever traces of “reckless driving” there is in his Goldberg is completely nonexistent here.

That said, Gavrilov’s performances are never boring. From the very start, the D minor Allemande’s various ornaments are subjected to absolutely precise pedal control, producing notes so clear and yet far from clinical or tasteless that it can be described, in simple terms, as tasteful. The E major Allemande’s staccatos and non-legatos are full of life, while the B Major Sarabande’s high-register melodies radiates warmth in the midst of forlornness, thanks to both Gavrilov’s sense of singing line and masterful pedal control. Gavrilov’s pulse has pinpoint precision: the Gigues, while not taken at a particularly radical speed, are full of rhythmic drive. Basically, what Gavrilov has done is seasoned a light-tasting dish with a bit of flavorful garnish: he uses his beautiful jeu perle tone and delicate pedal to moisten Bach’s linear sonority. Of course, the slight reverbrance of the recording helps too.

If we take into consideration other piano versions of this work, Hewitt has her distinctive treatment of transitions and voicings; Koroliov’s analytical playing is compromised by a dry and thin sonority; Schiff is just too restrained. Thus, if you want a balance between seriousness and entertainment, Gavrilov is your man. So why haven’t I mentioned Gould? That’s because he is sui generis—I recommend library builders to have a copy of both Gould and Gavrilov.  (^▽^)ν

[Editor’s note:  This emoticon has been preserved from Leonard’s original review in Chinese.]


  • Album name:  Bach:  French Suites
  • Performers:  Andrei Gavrilov (piano)
  • Label:  DG 474 460-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  93:36

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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