Bach Cello Suites 1-6

A fine selection from the EMI archives, with several excellent performances topped by Heinrich Schiff’s Bach Cello [Suite] Suites and Yuri Egorov’s Schumann piano music

Author: 
Ivan March

Bach Cello Suites 1-6

  • (6) Suites (Sonatas) for Cello
  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2, 'Resurrection'

This new batch of EMI Double Fortes (two discs offered for the price of one) again demonstrates the depth of the EMI back catalogue, a number of items appearing on CD for the first time. The one very serious drawback is the lack of texts and translations for the vocal recordings, a quite disgraceful omission for a company with the prestige of EMI.
The first disc listed is surely the pick of the pack. Heinrich Schiff’s set of the unaccompanied Bach Cello Suites is digitally recorded with the utmost naturalness, the cello timbre warm and beautifully focused. So, too, are the performances, which are splendidly paced; Bach’s linear flow is effortlessly phrased and moves forward with fine spontaneity.
Rostropovich has also recorded these supreme cello masterpieces for EMI (6/95), evoking an enormous range of expression, but Schiff’s less flamboyant style is every bit as satisfying. Very highly recommended.
Turning to the early partnership (1968) of Jacqueline du Pre and her husband, Daniel Barenboim, in the two Brahms Cello Sonatas, one experiences an altogether freer, more romantic style, and there’s an indulgent ebb and flow of tempo in the first movement of the E minor Sonata that some may resist. But the Allegretto has a charming lightness of touch and the finale plenty of energy. The opening of the F major Sonata has a stronger propulsion. Du Pre’s tenderness in the Adagio certainly catches its affetuoso in a very personal way and this is the stronger performance of the two. The more delicate romanticism of the Chopin Sonata suits both players well and the cello arrangement of the Franck Sonata finds them at their very best. In both, du Pre’s sotto voce cantilena is beautifully matched by Barenboim’s refined pianism, while he leads the second movement of the Franck onwards passionately. The analogue Abbey Road recordings are faithfully transferred to CD without any loss of analogue atmosphere.
Admirers of Klaus Tennstedt will be glad to have this reasonably priced LPO coupling of Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies, especially as the sound is so impressive, indeed spectacular in the Resurrection Symphony which has the advantage of more expansive Kingsway Hall acoustics. This is the finer of the two performances – they’re dedicated and have plenty of intensity, while the neurotic elements of the score are held in check. The soloists (especially Doris Soffel) and choral contribution are both admirable. No 1 is fresh and straightforward, vivid in detail, but not as atmospheric and naturally flexible as, say, Solti’s LSO account (which is shortly to re-appear in Decca’s Legends series). But the snag is the absence of texts and translations for No 2.
There are absolutely no reservations about Jeffrey Tate’s strongly characterised readings of four key late Mozart symphonies. The ECO emphasise elegance in the Linz Symphony, drama in the Prague (not missing the links with Don Giovanni), and the first movement of Symphony No 40 combines an expressive G minor atmosphere with incisiveness and boldness of attack. Indeed, the playing is absolutely top class, throughout, as fresh as it is polished; and the scale is right, too, so that in the Jupiter (with repeats observed in both outer movements) the weight of the music comes over alongside its detail, especially in the marvellous finale. Again, these new CD transfers are of the highest quality.
EMI’s Nielsen symphony cycle was originally issued in 1975 as part of an eight-LP compilation, also including much of the orchestral music. Since then Blomstedt has re-recorded the symphonies digitally for Decca, and the newer versions are undoubtedly superior on all counts. They now come on a couple of Double Deccas including other works and represent a current ‘best-buy’ for this repertoire. But the earlier HMV set is by no means to be dismissed, although here we only get four of the six symphonies (plus two shorter works). Nos 1 and 4 are the most successful, the latter with a gripping if fierce finale, followed here by the touching lament, At the bier of a young artist. Nos 2 and 3 are also very well played and thoroughly alive, if slightly less individually magnetic. The analogue sound is rather lean (quite different from the original quadrophonic LPs), but clear in detail.
The highlight of the 1968 Danish performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder is Dame Janet Baker’s glorious singing as the Woodbird, but the other soloists are very fine too, and the choral contribution is full of vitality. Yet the overall success of the performance lies primarily with Ferencsik’s dynamic overall direction both in the score’s spectacularly dramatic pages and its more lyrical ones, so that the whole work springs vividly to life. The recording, too, is both atmospheric and vividly detailed. The apt coupling is Norman Del Mar’s vibrant and polished account of the almost neoclassical Suite for Strings from Schoenberg’s American years. But the absence of text and translation for the vocal work is again a great drawback.
Collard, Dumay and Lodeon make a fine team and give sparkling performances of Schubert’s major works for piano trio, and a most beguiling account of the A major Duo for violin and piano. The early digital recording is bright and clear, but better balanced on the first disc – and first Trio – than the second, where the piano is made to dominate, and where Collard chooses a very brisk tempo for the opening movement which some listeners may feel is pressed too hard. Otherwise the playing has plenty of give and take and no lack of resilience and charm.
As a generous compilation of key Schumann piano works Yuri Egorov’s recital (or rather pair of recitals intermingled, from 1981 and 1985 respectively) is hard to beat. The two favourites, Carnaval and Kreisleriana, are full of temperament and imagination, and the lesser-known but most engaging Bunte Blatter are presented with much character. The Arabeske flows appealingly and Papillons is particularly sensitive. Splendidly assured pianism and a bold, very real piano image.
There is much to admire, too, in Berglund’s Sibelius collection. He was to go on and record Kullervo for a second time digitally with rather greater depth and power, but the earlier 1971 performance is still a considerable one, and the analogue recording has plenty of atmosphere. The orchestral collection on the second disc is also given full-bodied sound and the performances are assured, a rugged strength compensating for a lack of volatility. The two concertante Serenades, with Ida Haendel as a most sensitive soloist, were premiere recordings, and very good they are too.
In his original review of the first of the two song collections from Felicity Lott and Ann Murray, accompanied by Graham Johnson, which make up ‘Sweet power of Song’ (both collections were enthusiastically received in these pages), Alan Blyth commented: ‘This is the kind of disc that may well prove a collector’s piece in, say, the year 2050. I can imagine some young enthusiast then marvelling at the eclectic choice of items, at their consummate execution, and at the delightful presentation.’ Now the two CDs are offered very economically, but with no back-up of texts and translations. Otherwise there are few reservations about what is ‘on the whole a lovely display of co-ordinated planning and singing’.'

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