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Briefly Noted: Gerhardt's Bach

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Solo Cello Suites, A. Gerhardt

(released on March 29, 2019)
Hyperion CDA68261 | 129'06"
Alban Gerhardt's older recording of a Bach solo cello suite -- No. 5, released on the Oehms label -- seemed not quite ripe, as if the German cellist was forcing Bach's hand a bit. So it was surprising to be much more impressed by his live performance of the same suite at the Phillips Collection earlier this year. Gerhardt's complete set of the suites, released a few weeks later, is further witness to his far more satisfying approach to these seminal works.

Gerhardt plays on a 1710 Matteo Goffriller cello, an instrument with an especially pleasing dark, chicory tone on the low strings. That characteristic is important in many of the suites (especially the ones in C major and C minor), where notes on those low strings form a harmonic foundation something like the sound of the viola da gamba. It is difficult to make all six of the suites sound equally convincing on a single instrument because it is likely that Bach, in typically encyclopedic fashion, had more than one type in mind.

Most explicitly in that regard, the sixth suite was intended for an instrument with five strings, most likely something like the violoncello piccolo, a small version of the cello that had an extra high melodic string. Gerhardt's intonation at the top of the A string, where so much of this suite lies, is sure and the tone clean and sweet, even in lively detached articulations. He writes in his booklet note of controlling vibrato in these pieces, and that effort makes the phrasing refined and transparent. Most pleasing is the rhythmic approach, retaining the metered feel of dances without a slavish opposition to any rubato, as in the jaunty gavottes of the sixth suite, the homespun drones sort of like a sea chanty.

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