Stawarz’s Lively French Suites

DUX1739-40 cover

J.S. BACH: French Suites, BWV 812-817 / Lilianna Stawarz, hpd / Dux 1739/40-2

By conventional standards, Polish harpsichordist Lilianna Stawarz has had a sterling career. From the CD Accord website:

After studying harpsichord under Władysław Kłosiewicz at the Warsaw Music Academy, she graduated with honors in 1988. In 1990 she received a degree from the Conservatoire National de Region de Rueil-Malmaison where she studied in the class of Huguette Dreyfus. She won second prize at the first All-Polish Wanda Landowska Harpsichord Competition and a prize at the Polish Piano Music Festival in Słupsk. She was also a finalist in the International Harpsichord Competition in Paris. She has participated in numerous master classes in Baroque music interpretation (Innsbruck, Villecrose, Cracow, Accademia Musicale in Siena).

Since 1991 Lilianna Stawarz has been associated with the Warsaw Chamber Opera, where she performs as a chamber musician, as well as conducting from her harpsichord larger instrumental and vocal-instrumental works, such as Bach´s St Mark Passion, Purcell´s Dido and Aeneas, Scarlatti´s Thetis on Scyros, works of Polish 18th century composers – Songs and Arias, or a cycle of six concertos – Marcin Mielczewski znany i nieznany. She also participated in the recording of six compact discs of 17th century music (Mielczewski´s Opera Omnia) and of an album of Polish Baroque music by Damian Stachowicz. Together with Jean-Claude Malgoire she collaborated in the preparation of and performed in the operas: Alceste by Lully (1997), Catone in Utica by Vivaldi (1998), The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi, Tancrede by Campra.

But since she only plays Baroque music, and absolutely nothing modern, she is, by Nadia Boulanger’s definition, an incomplete artist.

My decision to review this CD was based on three things: 1) I didn’t have a recording of the French Suites in my collection, 2) when I sampled her playing on YouTube she seemed to be a pretty lively interpreter, and 3) although I like and appreciate certain pianists playing Bach, I really do love the sound of a harpsichord and so wanted good performances on that instrument.

Within the boundaries of those criteria, this is an excellent album. Stawarz is clearly better than the dull and boring Alessandra Artifoni on Dynamic CDS757, but by the same token she is pretty much equal to Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi HMU90758384DI and Christopher Hogwood on Decca 00028946673621, a shade less exciting than Glenn Gould on piano (Sony Classical). Thus your choice to obtain this recording will probably be based on sound quality.

Dux has recorded Stawarz pretty well, but chose to engulf her instrument in a fair amount of reverb. For the harpsichord, which has a very pretty sound but a somewhat dry one, this is not as bad as it sounds; the instrument sparkles in this sonic environment. Like most good harpsichordists, Stawarz has little control over dynamics, yet her instrument seems to be capable of some dynamic contrasts. I also liked her lively sense of rhythm; like her legendary fellow-countrywoman Wanda Landowska, Stawarz has fun with the irregular rhythms, such as in the concluding “Gigue” of the Suite No. 1, and this helps a lot in our appreciation of this music. I’ve long felt that the less stodgy you make Bach sound, the better it is, and Stawarz keeps your interest up by playing fairly briskly at all times, even in the slow movements. At times, such as in the slow movement (“Sarabande”) of the Suite No. 3, she shows a good grasp of runato as well.

If you like this recording, I also recommend that you seek out her 2010 album of C.P.E. Bach’s Keyboard Sonatas along with a Rondo and a Fantasia (CD Accord ACD 134, available to purchase as downloads at Amazon, Presto Music and Down in the Valley, or streaming at YouTube and Spotify (free) or Idagio and Apple iTunes (paid membership). Her performances are almost as lively as those of pianist/harpsichordist Preethi de Silva on Centaur or Bob van Asperen on Warner Classics.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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