Bach Suites for Solo Cello
Though these two new recordings of the Bach Cello Suites sound rather different, reading the two artists’ booklet essays reveals interesting similarities of approach. Both venerate Casals as an important figure in the works’ history, with Steven Isserlis even paying touching homage to him by appending a performance of a Catalan folksong. Both, like Casals, have bided their time before committing them to disc. And both have looked for interpretative guidance to extra-musical ideas, albeit of fascinatingly diverging kinds.
Of the two, Isserlis proposes the more 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 Prélude 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 Prélude dies away is spellbinding. There are so many other delights: the subtle comings and goings of the Third Prélude, the nobly poised Fifth Allemande, the swaggering climax that is the Sixth Gigue – I cannot mention them all. 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.
Kenedy’s inspiration is less specific – the Suites as celebration of Creation and of life as expressed through the dance, with that Second Prelude now climaxing with a “celestial choir” – but the result is no less heartfelt. His performances are bold and clean-lined, if less caressingly resonant than Isserlis’s and with less of his virtuoso agility and rhythmic flexibility. Kenedy makes less distinction between different suites and prefers strongly projected lines shaped by big crescendi and diminuendi, though at a cost in light and shade. And despite his stated interest in the dance element, he lacks Isserlis’s airborne magic. But these are performances of honest affection, and ones to be well pleased with.