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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Suites for cello solo (BWV 1007 - 1012)

[I] Angela East, cello, cello piccolo
rec: May 2001, Saint-Irénée (Québec), Domaine Forget (Françoys-Bernier Concert Hall); Feb 2004, Troy, N.Y., Troy Savings Bank Concert Hall
Red Priest Recordings - RP006 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (2.29'00")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[II] Josephine van Lier, cello, cello piccolo
rec: July 2009, Spruce Grove (Can), Holy Trinity Catholic Church
VanLier2010-01 (4 CDs) (© 2010) (3.43'52")
Liner-notes: E/F

[III] Roel Dieltiens, cello, cello piccolo
rec: April 7 - 9, 2009, Antwerp, AMUZ
Et'cetera - KTC 1403 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.24'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[IV] Quirine Viersen, cello
rec: Oct 19 - 21, 2010 & March 1 - 3, 2011, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Globe - Glo 5244 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (2.16'30")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

[V] Ophélie Gaillard, cello, cello piccolo
rec: Sept & Oct 2010, Paris, IRCAM
Aparté - AP017 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (2.17'00")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

[VI] Claire Giardelli, cello, cello piccolo
rec: April 18 - 24, 2012, Asfeld, Église Saint Didier
Ligia Digital - Lidi 0105248-12 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.15'11")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

[VII] Dmitry Badiarov, violoncello da spalla
rec: May 2009, Basse-Bodeux, Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Ramée - RAM 1003 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.18'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list


Suite No. 1 in G (BWV 1007); Suite No. 2 in d minor (BWV 1008); Suite No. 3 in C (BWV 1009); Suite No. 4 in E flat (BWV 1010); Suite No. 5 in c minor (BWV 1011); Suite No. 6 in D (BWV 1012)

Hardly a year passes without the release of at least one new recording of Bach's suites for cello solo. They belong to his most popular works and the earliest recordings date from the time when the romantic approach to Bach's music was the standard. Great cellists from past and present haven't missed the opportunity to give their view on these six suites. I haven't found a complete list of recordings on the internet; I doubt whether it is possible to put together such a list, considering the large number of recordings.

In recent years various new interpretations have been released, both on 'traditional' and on 'period' instruments. Some of these are reviewed here. However, it is neither possible to analyse them nor to compare them in detail. There are various reasons for that. Firstly, the recordings reviewed here are different in the choice of instruments. In most of them the Suites 1 to 5 are played at the baroque cello, whereas the cello piccolo is used in Suite No. 6. However, Josephine van Lier also uses two modern instruments which are very different from each other, Quirine Viersen also plays a 'conventional' instrument, whereas Dmitry Badiarov plays the violoncello da spalla. Secondly, the purpose of this review is a broad survey of the various approaches to these suites. Even if one prefers a specific performance, there will always be individual movements which come off better in another recording. I don't think there will be any recording which will satisfy in every detail. Thirdly, these recordings are not direct rivals: everyone of them has to compete with the large number of recordings, both on modern and on period instruments, which are already available.

Let me start with Josephine van Lier (II). One notable feature of her recording is that she needs four discs, whereas all the others are confined to only two. The main reason is that she has recorded Suite No. 5 on three different cellos. Moreover, this suite and No. 6 are very long: for the 5th she needs 29 minutes, for the 6th even 36. Because of that three discs wouldn't suffice, even though the first disc, which includes Suites Nos. 1 and 2, lasts less than 47 minutes. Van Lier uses a baroque cello (Suite No. 2), a cello piccolo (Suite No. 6), a 'contemporary' cello (Suite No. 4) and a 'carbon fibre' cello (Suite No. 3). The recording of Suite No. 5 on three different cellos offers the chance to compare their respective qualities and assess their suitability for this repertoire.
The baroque cello is a copy; the original is not mentioned and it seems likely that this instrument is loosely based on baroque models. A baroque bow is used, the cello has gut strings and the tuning is a'=415 Hz. The contemporary cello is a French instrument dating from c1870, and has steel strings. The tuning (a'=440 Hz) and bow are also modern. The third cello is the most unconventional: a cello made of carbon fibre, the strings are steel and perlon. She uses the same bow as on the contemporary cello and the tuning is again a'=440 Hz. The cello piccolo is again based on baroque models, with gut strings. The bow and the tuning are the same as on the baroque cello.
In her programme-notes Ms Van Lier states that she misses character and depth when playing the carbon fibre cello. That is easily understandable and is confirmed by her performance. However, I am not sure to what extent that is due to the instrument. I am not impressed by her performances at the baroque cello. Her playing seems a rather uphill battle, and her performance at the cello piccolo in the 6th Suite is even awkward. Here and there the intonation is suspect, and the tempi are generally rather slow as I already indicated. She seems to feel most at home at the modern cello; her performance of the 4th Suite on this instrument is most convincing. All in all, this recording seems not a really worthwhile addition to the discography.

I usually don't review performances of early music on modern instruments, not even when they are played in 'period style', as happens quite often these days. In this case I make an exception, because Quirine Viersen's recording (IV) shows what can achieved on a modern instrument, if played in 'period style', but also what the limitations are. Therefore it makes a useful contrast to the other recordings reviewed here. Ms Viersen's interpretation makes pretty clear that she understands the basics of historical performance practice. She uses a cello of 1715 which has been modernized at a later stage. The booklet doesn't tell whether gut strings are used, but my guess is that this is indeed the case. The result is quite different from the interpretation of Sabine van Lier. I have heard many good things in Ms Viersen's performance, especially the rhythmic pulse. As she approaches Bach's suites from the angle of the dance these parts of the suites come off best. She is less convincing in the preludes which have too little differentiation. The prelude from the Suite No. 4 is a good example: the dominating figure sounds the same every time it turns up. It is in such aspects that the downside of a 'modern' cello comes to the fore: it reflects the romantic ideal of an even sound in all registers which is in contradiction to the baroque aesthetics. Ms Viersen's interpretation is very respectable, but it is also a little superficial. There is little difference between allemande and courante, also because the tempo of the allemandes is a bit too fast.

It has taken Angela East (I) quite a while to release her interpretation which was recorded between 2001 and 2004. As she writes in her liner-notes this was due to the fact that the first recordings were made for a company which faced financial trouble and was taken over by another company. She then had to take legal action to come into the possession of her own recordings; when she succeeded these were technically not readable. It was only in 2009 that the complete recording could be released. Was it worth the effort? For Angela East it obviously was, but I am not convinced that her interpretation is something we were waiting for. It is self-willed and often rather extreme - something you may like to hear once but not for a second time. The preludes are especially problematic: they are often quite slow, but also undifferentiated, due to the frequent legato playing. The musical figures often are played the same way which becomes tiresome after a while. On the other hand, in the courante from the Suite No. 1 the stressed notes are so strongly emphasized that the unstressed notes are hardly noticeable. There are lots of odd accents and the treatment of dynamics is often quite strange, for instance in the prelude of the Suite No. 3. The Suite No. 6, played at the cello piccolo, comes off best, especially the sarabande. However, on balance this recording is more irritating than enjoyable. Ms East plays an original instrument by Peter Wamsley (English, 1725) and a cello piccolo after Amati.

In a way Roel Dieltiens (III) is just as self-willing as Angela East. His interpretation is much more consistent, and - what is especially important - much more compelling. The principle of 'music as speech' is the foundation of his performance. That comes particularly to the fore in Dieltiens' performance of the preludes. Each phrase has its own character, due to a differentiation in articulation, tempo or dynamics or singling out a note or figure. One is inclined to listen so carefully to what he has to say that one probably pays not so much attention to the tempo he has chosen. That doesn't mean that Dieltiens has set a new standard, if that is possible at all. One could argue that his ornamentation is a bit too much of a good thing. However, anyone who has a more than average interest in these suites should get to know this recording. Dieltiens sings in a way of his own in the large choir of interpreters. The booklet omits any information about the instruments used here. In another source I found that he plays a copy of a Stradivarius and an anonymous French cello piccolo.

The last two recordings of these suites, played at the baroque cello, are made by two French ladies. Having heard the two first suites by Ophélie Gaillard (V) I was quite satisfied: her playing is technically accomplished and stylistically there is nothing wrong. I could imagine to return to her performance once in a while. However, when the recording progressed I became a bit disappointed about the lack of differentiation. There is little contrast; there is hardly anything which makes one listen with pricked-up ears. Ms Galliard's interpretation is rather colourless and dynamically too flat. Whereas Dieltiens plays the preludes with considerable differentiation, Ophélie Galliard's performances are too much of the same. Despite the unmistakable qualities of her recording it is too much middle-of-the-road to be suitable for repeated listening. Ms Gaillard plays a Francesco Goffriller from 1737 and an anonymous Flemish cello piccolo.

The interpretation by Claire Giardelli (VI) makes a more lasting impression. She often plays in orchestras unter the direction of Philippe Herreweghe, and one is inclined to hear his influence in Ms Giardelli's interpretation. Her performance is very speech-like, her phrasing completely logical and the articulation is outstanding. The preludes are often quite telling, and many performers seem to have problems to deliver a convincing performance of them. That does not go for Ms Giardelli: the preludes are given a compelling interpretation; the prelude of the Suite No. 3 is an especially good example. Ms Giardelli clearly emphasizes the stressed notes, the improvisatory elements are perfectly realised, partly due to a subtle use of rubato, and the dramatic aspects of these suites are convincingly conveyed. In the slow movements she plays with intensity and expression; in the slow movements the rhythmic pulse is excellently exposed. In the bunch of recordings which I have heard recently this disc stands out. Claire Giardelli plays a copy of a Stradivarius and a modern cello piccolo, apparently based on baroque models.

Lastly a completely different look at these suites. There has been speculation about the instrument for which they were composed. It has been suggested that the instrument which is called the violoncello is not the instrument which today is used as 'baroque cello', but rather the so-called violoncello da spalla. It is held with a strap around the neck and played like a large viola. In particular Sigiswald Kuijken has been active in the promotion of this instrument and its role in baroque music. He himself recorded these suites on this instrument - a recording I have not heard. The Russian-born violinist and violin maker Dmitry Badiarov (VII) played a major role in the examination of this instrument's role in history and in its construction. In his recording he plays an instrument of his own. He believes that the parts in Bach's cantatas which are played at the cello piccolo these days are intended for the violoncello da spalla and that all the six suites for cello solo are also meant to be played on this instrument. He defends his views with great persuasiveness. His interpretation is differentiated and rooted in the rhetorical principles of German baroque music. Some movements may be debatable, for instance in regard to tempo, but on the whole this interpretation is fully convincing. The Suites No. 3 and No. 5 are especially well played, and the prelude of the 4th Suite has great tension. Anyone who wants to know what these suites sound like if played at the violoncello da spalla should look for this set.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Dmitry Badiarov
Roel Dieltiens
Angela East
Ophélie Gaillard
Josephine van Lier
Quirine Viersen

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