Bach’s Cello Suites have been popping up left and right, recently – re-issues and new recordings alike. As with every piece of music that is so widely recorded (there are more than five dozen versions currently available, not counting transcriptions for recorder, guitar, marimba, harp, viola, double bass, the question arises why yet another recording is necessary or what it can bring us that is new, or different, or even better.
Listening to a variety of recordings made over the last forty years, the answer is: a lot, actually. On technical grounds, improvements are very notable. On interpretive grounds there is a greater variety available – from playing the Suites romantically to playing them as ‘idealized music’, to the many varying historically informed (HIP) approaches. And, very notably, the sound quality has come a long way from Pablo Casals’ famous Ur-recording (1936-39) to Anne Gastinel’s recording for naïve (2008) or Jan Vogler's (2012). And just in the time between, other recordings have come and gone, like Alexander Kniazev’s Suites on Warner, and the Arte Nova re-issue of Guido Schiefen’s set... available in Europe at least.
Re-issued in the UK on the “Penguin / Gramophone Recommends” series from Virgin/EMI – and available in a myriad of different issues from EMI – is Mstislav Rostropovich’s recording. And no matter how many times I hear it, it just doesn’t get any better. (Not in the good sense.) It remains brilliant drudgery, with Rostropovich senselessly noodling through the the Suite’s Prélude or the second Suite’sCourante, and elsewhere just grinding down to listless emotional stasis. Was Rostropovich too reverent in tackling these works? Perhaps he was afraid of improperly bringing his own personality to the high holy temple of Bach… and ended up with performances into which no emotionality seems invested. The result, whatever went into the making of these 1995 recordings, sounds to these ears like a musician’s
checking of boxes—the notes are all there, and little more.
I have a difficult time listening through all six of Rostropovich’s Suites in one sitting – something that, while not necessary the recommended dose for these works, isn’t difficult with the best accounts. I don’t wish to suggest that the success of this recording is entirely due to the effect Rostropovich’s name has on buyers and listeners. After all, it isn’t without merits – like technical accuracy (though that should not have been too novel in 1995) – and it must genuinely enthuse at least some Cello Suite aficionados. But though I try to figure out what that might be – apart from Bach’s genius which shines through in any performance – I just can’t. I can only – strongly – recommend sampling this alongside other versions, in case the temptation should strike to make this one’s only recording of the Cello Suites.
Consider as an alternative the timeless Fournier, the virtues of which I have extolled elsewhere, and which now comes at super budget price in DG/Archiv’s “Al Fresco” series. I felt redeemed in my near evangelical advocacy of Fournier when a friend with good ears recently wrote me:
“I’ve always felt well served by Paul Tortelier’s performances and without much need to acquire another (although I did pick up the Truls Mørk—love the sound of his cello – and the new Isserlis).
So your enthusiasm for the Fournier set was always countered in my mind with the “do I really need another set?” syndrome. (Why? It has never stopped me from adding more Sonatas & Partitas…)
However, the al fresco packaging is such a steal, that I ordered it. Goodness—you are right. What was I thinking? The Fournier stands head and shoulders above the others. The involvement, the finesse, the delight of the playing combines for an almost other-worldly experience. I took in all six in a single sitting, and then listened to the lot again.”
Reviewing new releases from Anne Gastinel, Stephen Isserlis (Hyperion), Gavriel Lipkind (edel/Berlin Classics), and Jean-Guihen Queyras (Harmonia Mundi) alongside the classic Nikolaus Harnoncourt (now on apex/Warner) and said Fournier, proved how enormously satisfying and thoughtful the recordings of the young cellist generation are. And it showed how Fournier still holds his own against them. And if not by towering head and shoulders above them, so at least by suffering not from the competition.
Stephen Isserlis’ recording out of the way first: Speedy, lean, without much audible interpretive weight (though plenty via the fine liner notes!), he and his Hyperion engineers offer a somewhat thin sound in a very dry acoustic. That’s surprising, given the luxurious sound that his Stradivarius (Suites 1-4, 6) and Guadagnini (Suite 5) cellos are known to produce in concert or on other recordings.
Isserlis gives a very matter-of-factly reading that makes Gastinel’s – not really a personality-imbued interpretation, either – seem downright willful. There are moments when the interpretation strikes me as timid. Soft parts – listen to the Gavotte of Suite No.5 – can sound rushed and remind me of Rostropovich. (Which you won’t mistake for praise, given the above.) In the best moments he shows élan and a refreshing, athletic stride – but all too often it just sounds wimpy. He is a little easier on ornamentation than his French and German colleagues, and double stops are less often ‘carried over’ more notes – perhaps a result of working off the relatively ornamentation-sparse Anna-Magdalena score?
Speaking of the text: A very likable feature of the Isserlis recording is the inclusion, an appendix of sorts, of the Prelude from Suite No.1 in three versions – faithfully (including mistakes) following the three earliest surviving copies of the work: that of Anna Magdalena Bach’s, of Johann Peter Keller’s, and the manuscript from the Johann Christoph Wesphal collection. (In the recording proper, he plays his own Anna-Magdalena-based amalgamate.) At first hearing the differences might zip by unnoticed, but with enough repeat exposure (for example when comparing seven recordings to another) you can catch some of them even without following a score.
Going back to Fournier, a fuller, more buoyant interpretation than Isserlis’, reveals Archiv’s recorded sound as very, very good. Just right in being neither too reverberant nor too dry, though not as detailed (Gastinel), rich (Lipkind), clear (Queyras), or dryly focused (Isserlis) as the modern competition. This becomes even more apparent on hearing the first note of Harnoncourt. Although the 1965 Teldec/Das Alte Werk recording (part of the first complete Bach Edition) is about four years younger than Fournier’s, it sounds like it could be decades older. It’s as if Harnoncourt played from the bottom of a bottle. The interpretation itself is like a snapshot of the crossroad between the old Casals way of playing the Suites and the emerging HIP trend.
I enjoy Harnoncourt, not so much because of any superior qualities (there are none that I can detect), but because it makes me smile patronizingly. This slightly plodding, slow and inflexible way of playing the Suites – without the benefit of a steadily bouncing forward momentum and that rhythmic consistency in Bach otherwise yields – just isn’t up to snuff anymore. And it’s funny to think that it ever was, given the competition even back then.
Harnoncourt is only for the very curious – and Isserlis perhaps for the humorless. In this crowded field, the only ones who will really want to add Isserlis to their collection are those who prefer as straight-laced an account as possible, without going the HIP route. The choice for a modern recording is more likely to be between Gastinel, Lipkind, and Queyras – all of which deserve a recommendation and which I will write about in more detail next week.
The Bach Cello Suites elsewhere on ionarts: