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GRAMOPHONE (11/2021)
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Reviewer: Patrick Rucker

Sophie Yates is an artist who wears her immense erudition lightly. Listening to her, one encounters the composer’s voice, clothed in the style of his day or as close to it as our 21st-century means can get us, speaking with disarming directness. The latest of her many recordings is a two-disc set devoted to Bach’s six English Suites. She plays a replica of the two-manual 1624 Ruckers harpsichord at Colmar by Andrew Garlick.

One strength of Yates’s performances is her grasp of the cycle as a whole. She creates the sense of a cosmos which is at once richly cross-referential yet composed of distinct elements, each a self-contained entity with unique purpose. Bach begins each suite with a prelude. They share functional similarities with the préludes non-mesurés of his French models but Bach’s preludes are consistently the longest piece of each suite, elaborately structured and widely stylistically varied.

In Yates’s vibrant realisations, the distinct character of these preludes becomes immediately evident. If the more relaxed openings of Suites Nos 1 (A major) and 6 (D minor) nod towards the exploratory arpeggiation of the clavecinistes, the robust virtuosity of the A minor Second Suite could easily stand in for one of Bach’s own concertos for several keyboards. The rich orchestral textures opening Suite No 3 (G minor) instantly suggest an Italian concerto à la Vivaldi, while the upward thrusting gestures at the beginning of the of the F major Fourth Suite would not be out of place in a sinfonia of one of the cantatas. Meanwhile, the serious declamatory rhetoric that opens Suite No 5 (E minor) evokes a fantasy from one of the great organ works.

The sets of seven dance movements following each of these auspicious curtainraisers are no less characterful, always subtly delineated by the seemingly infinite variety of touch and release at Yates’s disposal. In addition to the vitality of these interpretations and their stylistic assurance, her resourceful exploitation of the instrument is a joy to the ear.

Among the crowded field of English Suites by harpsichordists with sensibilities as diverse as Leonhardt, Egarr, Rousset, Suzuki, van Asperen, Jaccottet and Hantaï, I am confident Yates will find a proud place.

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