Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066 I. Ouverture
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067 VII. Badinerie
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 II. Air
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069 I. Ouverture
A celebration of dance
The magnificent Orchestral Suites, known as Ouvertüren in German, form the final instalment in Dunedin Consort’s long-running Bach Masterworks series for Linn, a series lauded as ‘nothing short of sensational’ by Gramophone. The intricate counterpoint and extraordinary technical demands present an opportunity, throughout these four sets of stately French-style overtures and dances, to demonstrate the virtuosic skill present in an ensemble of Dunedin’s calibre.
The first two suites are scored for modest forces, yet the lightness and simplicity of touch conceals a complex musical language built on intimately interweaving parts. The third and fourth suites calls for trumpets, timpani, oboes, and a full complement of strings, thus making for a grand finale to Dunedin’s unrivalled Bach series. An insight into the ambition of this recording is offered in the title of the fourth suite’s final movement: for what better way to end the series than to fill listeners with immense ‘réjouissance’!
Cover art: ‘Orchestral Suites’ by Kirsty Matheson, painted in response to Dunedin Consort’s recording.
Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, wrote that the composer infused his music with dance elements to a degree far exceeding that of his predecessors or contemporaries, diversifying the character of each piece and even rendering his fugues dance-like in their phraseology and movement. This assessment might seem unexpected to those who have come to understand Bach as the most supremely cerebral and intellectually challenging of composers. But perhaps this common conception sometimes distracts us from Bach’s understanding of human movement in space and time. His music surely draws not only our ears but also our entire bodies, along with the ongoing experience of his polished musical textures.
In fact, dance – vilified by the Puritans and Pietists as distracting us from serious spiritual pursuits – was appreciated by the orthodox Lutheran culture in which Bach spent so much of his life. Many claimed that dance, like music, would develop the sensual, emotional and physical aptitudes of participants, refining and disciplining these to cultivate a more integrated personality. Following Platonist ideals, proponents of dance felt that organised and socialised movement of the body reconciled the inner and outer natures of the conscientious practitioner.
Bach’s four Orchestral Suits (or Overtures) exemplify ‘real’, practical dances and must surely have accompanied dance in some of the environments in which the composer worked. They are outstanding in their witty motivic detail and pacing of our aural (and indeed physical) expectations. Moreover, even in these most practical of pieces there is always a sense, as so often with Bach, that they are also ‘about’ dance – they invite our contemplation and memory of movement in the very act of hearing them.