I count nearly 80 available recordings of the Bach Cello Suites and I’ve probably missed a few and wasn’t even counting transcriptions. I have about a quarter of those recordings, which goes to show that I can show restraint, especially when it comes to Bach.
Along with the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, the Cello Suites really are—in an abstract sense—among the most perfect creations of Bach’s. It is this perfection (and the occasional challenges to the performer, not likely possible to have been met by any instrumentalist at the time) that make artists and musicologists suggest that they were composed as ‘ideal music’, not necessarily for the practical purpose of being played or performed. This is the realm of Bachian mysticism where the composer, Plato, and even God seem to rub shoulders. One can dismiss this kind of attitude as absurd or anti-rational, of course. But the way Bach’s music touches those who perform (and listen to) it will always invite this sort of thinking.
I think it was András Schiff talking about Beethoven when he confessed to occasionally feeling guilty about how much he enjoyed playing these works in front of an audience that could only listen to it. This certainly is a statement to would equally well describe Bach and much of his music. And it must be very enjoyable playing those Cello Suites, because in the last five, six years very notable new recordings were released. (And most recently Jan Vogler's, reviewed last week.)
Among them Jean-Guihen Queyras (much loved by me for his Ligeti, Dvořák, and Haydn), Steven Isserlis, the hitherto-unknown-to-me Gavriel Lipkind, Anne Gastinel, Sebastian Klinger, and re-issues of Fournier, and the earlier recording of Mischa Maisky’s on DVD.
All are distinguished by a first and foremost musical, not historical approach. Of course the finest Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIP) accounts of any music prove beyond doubt that the musical and historical are hardly incompatible. But likewise it is not necessary to hear music as its composer might have, in order to enjoy it. If you definitively prefer gut strings, minimal vibrato, and aviolincello piccolo in the Sixth Suite (it really does sound better!), I recommend the stupendous Peter Wispelwey (Channel Classics), the remarkable Bruno Cocset (Alpha, using not just two but four different instruments for the suites), or Paolo Beschi (Winter & Winter). If you are, like me, a HIP-agnostic, you will find great rewards in any good rendition.
There is no question that all these new recordings are extraordinarily well played. At the time of the Maisky recording (1986) there might still have been a sense of wonder about the facilities of a cellist who could command the Fifth Cello Suite with ease. Nowadays we consider that just about standard fare for anyone who plays the instrument. Sure enough, none of the above cellists gives any sense of struggle in their performances.
J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
DG / Unitel
The DVD contains the same recording and watching it now, eight years after his free-wheeling second recording appeared, it reveals surprising strengths. Yes, it is not particularly Maisky-centered, it hasn’t his personality stamped all over it. But this is not necessarily bad. It is more or less a typical 20th century approach of getting the music to sound its possible best on a modern instrument. (Or better: modern strings and bow, for his instrument is hardly modern but instead an incredibly round and warm sounding Domenico Montagnana cello from the first half of the 18th century.)
In comparison to his later account, this is an almost refreshingly straight forward approach benefiting greatly from the superb acoustic in the different rooms of the 16th century Villa Caldogno Nordera (in Vicenza), recorded and filmed one suite at a time. Watching Maisky—not yet decked out in Issey Miyake—sit on his wooden pedestal is more compelling than I would have thought. I am normally bored very quickly by orchestral or purely musical performances on DVD; I get impatient and sometimes even annoyed. Not here, despite very subtle camera changes with focus changing between Maisky’s head, or hands, or the bow. (Humphrey Burton and Horant Hohlfeld directed.)
Maisky, who writes out the repeats because he likes to visualize the continuity and linearity of the music and not think of it in terms of repetition, really only gets animated in the d-minor Prélude. The Courante from that Suite—on the fast side—deviates from his generally measured approach while the Sarabande right after it is very expansive. After everything is bowed and done, Maisky’s first traversal of these suites is nothing less than generous and uncommonly beautiful.
On DVD, this is terrific competition to the available versions from Miklós Perényi,Yo-Yo Ma, Rostropovich (not appreciated by me in any version) and Wen-Sinn Yang. On CD the competition is stronger—leaving admittedly little room for this particular interpretation. More of those, including Anne Gastinel’s accounton naïve, anon.
The Bach Cello Suites elsewhere on ionarts: