BACH: English Suites (complete); French Suites (complete).
Alexander Borovsky (piano).
Pristine Audio PAKM 074 TT: 166:17 (3 CDs).

Alexander Borovsky, although few know him today, during his career counted as "a pianist's pianist." Listeners particularly appreciated his Chopin and his Bach. He had a patrician approach to music -- little flash, a great reserve and an elegant touch. You don't hear an obvious personality. Often, he seems to be "just playing." I admired this ideal in my youth but have turned slightly away from it. I want to hear, not pianists who play the work "best," but who make the score their own in a way "natural" to them that illuminates the music. Borovsky may be just a bit too reserved for me now.

. The English Suites differ from the French in that the former begin with a "Prelude" -- a free-form, highly contrapuntal movement -- rather than a dance. Although it's the height of chutzpah to undervalue Bach, I greatly prefer the English to the French Suites, mainly because of those preludes, which bestow drama to the set. The French Suites come across as more abstract.
These recordings reveal Borovsky's virtues and defects. The gorgeous touch and clear textures attract the ear. However, the reserve just deadens the English Suites. Furthermore, Borovsky often rushes the music and fails to observe repeats, as if he can't wait to get these pieces over with. The failure to observe repeats bothers me more, because in a repeat, the player has the chance to reveal something different about the passage. Here, one judges how deep a player's understanding of Bach runs. Borovsky succeeds more in the French Suites, whose abstraction suits his cool. Here, for some reason, he takes the repeats.
I'd like to concentrate on the English Suite No. 2 in a. It happens to be the first classical piece I remember hearing, probably at the age of three or four. My mother, who had studied for a concert career, played it for me, and this was one of what the family called her "million-dollar pieces." The Prelude was the first piece of contrapuntal music I remember, and it knocked my Keds off. The successive imitative entries seemed to both yank back time to its starting point and to continue. I've never forgotten that feeling -- fat chance, since I used to pester her to play it over and over.
It's certainly one of the more dramatic suites, and many famous pianists have tackled it without recording a complete set -- Argerich, de Larrocha, Gulda, and Pogorelich among them. I first heard French pianist Reine Gianoli (she recorded them all), which I liked, mainly because she played them like my mother.
The Prelude, filled with wild leaps, Borovsky tames. His phrasing, however, is beautiful, despite a slightly detached touch. The tempo runs a shade too quickly at first, but I got used to it. Furthermore, he brings out the beauty of the second theme without seeming to work and without affectation.
The Allemande (French for "German") exists in two forms, one in duple meter and a later one in triple meter, a forerunner to the waltz. Bach uses the first. Contemporaries considered it "grave and ceremonious," and Borovsky ignores this with a too-fast tempo. He also ignores the repeats in this and almost every following movement.
The Courante is a dance in 3/2, rhythmically ambiguous. You can phrase it as two groups of three or three groups of two. Bach uses both groupings. Although its name means "running," the French version usually has a more stately character. Borovsky takes it in a sprint. The missing repeats make this movement as transitory as a political promise.
The Sarabande, a grave dance in triple meter with the weight of the measure on the second beat, assumes most of the emotional weight of the suite. Here, I prefer Borovsky's reserve. He doesn't wallow, and (big surprise) he does observe the repeats. His approach to the second time through, however, merely decorates the tune, and not all that imaginatively at that.
The Bourée, originally a French country clog dance, has a dactylic rhythm (long-short-short), often with a one-beat pickup. Bach incorporates a musette (a piece that imitates the drone of bagpipes) as a trio. The lack of repeats doesn't bother me in the bourée, but it does in the musette. After all, we get to hear the bourée repeat in its final appearance, but Borovsky's failure to observe the musette repeats robs the little dance of its proper weight and distorts the proportions of the entire movement.
The final Gigue comes off as a mixed bag. Again, the gorgeous phrasing and Borovsky's uncanny ability to highlight any voice he wants fail to make up for the absence of the repeats. The movement consequently misses a satisfactory capping off the suite. To paraphrase Keats, this music seems "writ in water," weak and apologetic. It's truly difficult to trivialize Bach, but Borovsky, despite many exquisite moments, comes pretty damn close.
Pristine Audio has performed miracles with old recordings, even old stereo recordings. However, even these audio mavens need a good foundation, a decent original. Vox notoriously boxy sound carries over here. No scratches or hisses and I'm sure any variations in recording speed have been corrected, but it is still the dull Vox sound I remember. In general, I wouldn't recommend these recordings to anyone other than fans of Borovsky. If you haven't heard these suites before, I suggest you begin with András Schiff.

S.G.S. (April 2020)