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The Cello Suites, Bach III (Gastinel, Queyras, Lipkind)

Over a few months in 2008 (republished now) I’ve looked at recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites including Mischa Maisky on DVD in February and the classic Harnoncourt, Fournier, Rostropovich as well as Steven Isserlis’ new account. Still missing from my little survey are three recent recordings: Anne Gastinel’s, Jean-Guihen Queyras’, and that of Gavriel Lipkind... to which I turn now. (I will spare you dissecting recent marimba and harp versions in this review, but may cruelly delight in doing so when I write more about transcriptions.)

Gastinel’s account on naïve, the latest of that batch, offers a forward, comparatively lean cello sound; not as happily booming as Schiff / EMI, not as resonant as Lipkind and Queyras, yet in a more subtly reverberant acoustic, with more air around her cello and at a greater distance to the listener. She sounds busier than those two, without actually being faster. She uses less ornamentation than her male colleagues and is, especially compared to Lipkind, less free-wheeling. In the Sarabande of Suite No.4 she doesn’t slur through most of the opening. Like Harnoncourt, she taps the first double stop, but doesn’t ‘hold’ it all the way to the next.

She can’t be said to be un-involving, but she is more matter-of-fact (something that is put into perspective when compared to the truly somber Isserlis). Details are very audible in this combination of clean playing and clean sound, but so is – unfortunately – her very pointed inhaling. It is notable to the point where I can detect her recording out of all the others within seconds, just on the account of those breaths. Less impressive than her male colleagues at first, Gastinel becomes dearer and dearer upon second and third hearing. The extraneous noises, though, might be enough to turn me

off for good. Unlike the other reviewed recordings (except Rostropovich), Gastinel’s Suites are not arranged in order but, to fit them on two CDs, include Suites 1, 4, and 5 on disc one, Suites 2, 3, and 6 on disc two.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,

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J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,

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J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,

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J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
Lipkind Prod.

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J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
Harmonia Mundi

Lipkind’s recording on the edel classics label is very special even before you’ve heard a single note. A more lavishly packaged set can scarcely be imagined. In a protective sleeve awaits a thick leathery box (it is made of very thick paper specially treated to imitate leather) with gold lettering and braille dots that unfolds a bit like the Isenheim Altar. In it are three hybrid-SACDs, a ‘map’ to Lipkind’s performance and his ideas about the Suites, and extensive, erudite liner notes. Since the set is made by “Lipkind Productions in cooperation with edel classics”, apparently the first volume in a series called “Single Voice Polyphony”, the suspicion arose that this is a very, very fancy vanity production. (Edit: It's now just on Lipkind Productions, and part of a series of [incidentally excellent] recordings he self-publishes.)

Maybe—probably—it is. But whether Lipkind or his father or kind private sponsors paid for this production, or a record company, is insubstantial given the contents. Certainly Gavriel Lipkind, of whom I had never heard before, hasn’t recorded the set of Bach Suites to please all, but precisely in not trying to please everyone he has achieved something that, for the time being, has toppled my Cello Suite hierarchy.

The recorded sound is impressive (which also means: unsubtle), a wee bit less detailed than ideal, but incredibly natural, warm, and breathing. It’s recorded at a nearly ideal distance to the cello: you don’t hear every finger sliding over the strings, nor every breath, and it’s not too distant, either. Occasionally things buzz a little, but then again, so does a real cello. The richness in the tone of the Fifth Suite’s Gavotte might be thought slightly muddy compared to the airy Gastinel – but elsewhere the cello’s sound is among the most beautiful of the eight reviewed, even in regular CD mode.

He plays in a very individual style, varied and elastic, with accents and dynamic variations in abundance. You’d think that Lipkind would need more time than the clear Gastinel with this emotive and liberal style. He doesn’t: sometimes unnoticeably, sometimes flamboyantly, he makes up for time lost with incredibly fleet and light playing, to the point of superficiality in the Gavotte II of Suite No.5, but more often to dazzling effect. Romantic might be a suitable description and with lots of personality. His playing reminds me a little of Christophe Rousset’s style on the harpsichord. Even if you don’t quite follow the elaborate and near-mystical ‘analysis’ of the Suites (interesting though it is) and their interrelation, this is a most tempting offering for all who needn’t have their Bach entirely straight-laced.

Queyras’ recording isn’t dissimilar, but his playing is lighter and more liquid and the recorded sound has very pronounced but somehow light reverb. In direct comparison, this sounds like played in a veritable echo chamber – it’s the Romanesque church St.Syriak in Sulzburg, actually – but that’s more than made up for by the extraordinarily nice cello sound and it never smudges the cello. The Frenchman who has impressed me immensely with his Dvořák album offers a wonderful flexibility (more so than Gastinel), but often less explicitly than Lipkind.

In some ways, Queyras, without copying the old master, could be thought of as a modern Fournier. They differ in details, but they also have details (and timings) in common. Like carrying pedal points from one double stop through an entire phrase to the next double stop. (In the opening of the Sarabande of Suite 4 Lipkind does this, too, Isserlis drops it after two notes, Harnoncourt and Gastinel, as mentioned, only tap it once at the beginning.)

I know someone else has coined the term for a different work, but with Queyras the Suites become the apotheosis of dance. His lightness (a lightness of touch, not the speedy timidity of Isserlis) has immense grace where Lipkind has bold momentum. I wouldn’t want to choose one over the other, but I could imagine that Queyras might yield more pleasure in the long run while Lipkind impresses me more now, his interpretation still new and fresh to my ears. Harmonia Mundi’s 2 CD-set is nicely packaged, too, and offers a bonus DVD of the “Making Of” in French with either English or German subtitles.

Listening to these recordings, it struck me that even those who desire distinctly ‘baroque performance’ are now – ironically – prepared to accept the ‘beautiful indulgences’ that mark Queyras’ and Lipkind’s approach, precisely because the latest wave of HIP (Historically Informed Performance) performers has gotten us used to an exuberant wildness now taken with this music. It is, in a way, via the liberated period performers that the ‘romantic’ element makes strides.

The Bach Cello Suites elsewhere on ionarts:

Just What Are the Bach Cello Suites? [Pandolfo, Cocset]
Solo Bach Cello Suites [Ma, Haimovitz]
Dip Your Ears, No. 4 [Wispelwey]
Dip Your Ears, No. 25 [Fournier]
Dip Your Ears, No. 111 [S.Kuijken, Viola Pomposa]
Dip Your Ears, No. 145 [Vogler]
Bach Cello Suites [Baumann, Boettcher]
The Cello Suites, Bach I [Maisky, DVD]
The Cello Suites, Bach II [Rostropovich, Fournier, Isserlis, Harnoncourt]
● The Cello Suites, Bach IV [Klinger]
● CD Pick & Recent Releases [Bailey]
● Suites for Dancing [Curtis]