Bach's Solo Cello Suites
The Gramophone Choice
Solo Cello Suites Nos 1-6
Pierre Fournier vc
DG The Originals 449 711-2GOR2 (138‘ · ADD) Recorded 1961-63. Buy from Amazon
Of all the great cellists, Pierre Fournier came closer to the heart of the music than almost any other. He seems to have possessed all the virtues of his fellow cellists without yielding to any of their self-indulgences. He could be brilliant in execution – his technique was second to none, as he proves throughout this set – profound in utterance, aristocratic in poise and wonderfully coherent in his understanding of Bach’s articulation and phrases.
We need look no further than the Prelude of the First Suite in G major to find the supreme artistry which characterises each and every moment of these performances. There are very occasionally notes which fail to reach their centre but they’re few and far between, and Fournier’s intonation compares favourably with that of some of his virtuoso companions. Fournier’s rubato is held tightly in rein and when he does apply it, it’s in the interests of enlivening aspects of Bach’s formal writing. He can sparkle too, as he does in many of the faster dance-orientated movements such as courantes, gavottes and bourrées; in the sarabandes, he invariably strikes a note of grandeur coupled with a concentration amounting at times almost to abstraction. Above all, his Bach-playing is crowned with an eloquence, a lyricism and a grasp of the music’s formal and stylistic content which will not easily be matched. Fine recorded sound and strongly commended on virtually all counts.
Solo Cello Suites Nos 1-6. Traditional The Song of the Birds (arr Beamish)
Steven Isserlis vc
Hyperion CDA67541/2 (137’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Steven Isserlis clearly venerates Casals as an important figure in the Suites’ history, even paying touching homage to him by appending a performance of a Catalan folksong. Like Casals, Isserlis bided his time before committing them to disc, and he has looked for interpretative guidance to extra-musical ideas. Isserlis proposes a detailed concept. For him the Suites suggest a meditative cycle on the life of Christ, rather like Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. He points out that this is ‘a personal feeling, not a theory’, but it has to be said that once you know that he is thinking of the Agony in the Garden during the darkly questioning Second Suite (the five stark chords towards the end of the Prelude representing the wounds of Christ), the Crucifixion in the wearily troubled Fifth or the Resurrection in the joyous Sixth, it adds immense power and interest to his performances.
But then, this is also the most wonderful cello-playing, surely among the most consistently beautiful to have been heard in this demanding music, as well as the most musically alert and vivid. Not everyone will like the brisk tempi (though the Allemandes, for instance, gain in architectural coherence), but few will fail to be charmed by Isserlis’s sweetly singing tone, his perfectly voiced chords and superb control of articulation and dynamic – the way the final chord of the First Prelude dies away is spellbinding. There are so many other delights: the subtle comings and goings of the Third Prelude, the nobly poised Fifth Allemande, the swaggering climax that is the Sixth Gigue – to name but a few. Suffice to say that Isserlis’s Bach is a major entrant into an already highly distinguished field, and a disc many will want to return to again and again.
Solo Cello Suites Nos 1-6*. English Suite No 6 in D, BWV811 – Gavotte I; Gavotte II (arr Pollain). Komm, süsser Tod, BWV478 (arr Siloti). Violin Sonata, BWV1003 – Andante (arr Siloti). Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, BWV1068 – Air (arr Siloti). Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV564 – Adagio (arr Siloti)
Pablo Casals vc with Nikolai Mednikoff, Blas-Net, Otto Schulf pfs
*EMI mono 562611-2 (132' · ADD) Buy from Amazon
Naxos Historical mono 8 110915/6 (148' · ADD) Buy from Amazon
When these recordings first appeared back in the 1930s and ’40s, Bach for solo cello was a singular and esoteric concept. Casals had rediscovered the Suites for modern ears and his probing, albeit highly idiosyncratic, playing was a mandatory recommendation. Indeed, in those days it was the only recommendation. Nowadays, his achievement is still beyond question, but there will be some listeners who won’t like what they hear.
After, say, the elegantly tapered playing of János Starker, Casals can initially sound wilful and ungainly. His bow seems to slice through chords like a meat cleaver. His intonation wanders, and his fingers press down on the strings so forcefully that a note ‘pings’ even before the bow is drawn. Casals reels and rhapsodises as if blind drunk on expressive freedom.
However, this impression is only transitory. What at first sounds gruff, even offhand soon registers as boldly assertive. The intonation isn’t so much ‘faulty’ as expressively employed, and as for those pre-echoing ‘pings’, they soon cease to matter – much as Glenn Gould’s mumbling did years later. Time teaches you that the speaking tone, the poetic tenutos, the irresistible lilt in faster dance movements and the varied approach to vibrato were part of a grand musical plan, one that’s now cherishable.
Casals makes a singular musical experience out of every movement. Try the Courante and Sarabande of the Fifth Suite – muscular resolve followed by profound self-communing.
Transfer-wise, things could hardly have gone better. True, there’s some surface noise, but the sound has considerable realism and the broad contours of Casals’s tone are untroubled by excessive filtering. A rival package from Pearl (identical couplings plus a transcription from a Bach-Vivaldi Concerto) reports a fatter cello sound with less well focused contours. EMI’s set offers only the Suites in transfers that, while admirably clear, are rather less natural than Ward Marston’s for Naxos.