Bach: Cello Suites 1-6 - Viersen

Bach: Cello Suites 1-6 - Viersen

Globe  GLO 5244 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Bach: 6 Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012

Quirine Viersen (cello)

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - January 11, 2012

JS Bach's Solo Cello Suites were hardly known before 1900, thought by scholars to be mere exercises. Then the phenomenal 13-year old Spanish cellist Pablo Casals came across a copy in a second-hand book store. He espoused them immediately, eventually playing them at concerts, but not finally recording them until 1925, when he was 48, and again in the 1930s. These recordings, still much in demand, launched a musical myth. The 6 Bach Cello Suites cane to be considered as the Mount Everest of every aspiring cellist, many of whom refused to record them until they were old and mature enough, thus emulating Casals - Rostropovich being a case in point. In the meantime, they practised them assiduously, trying to fathom the emotional depths of the music and understand what message Bach was communicating therein.

For novices collecting recordings, it is perhaps worth exploding this myth. First, Casal's score was a rather free arrangement by the cellist Friedrich Wilhelm Grüzmacher (1832-1903), with extra added chords, ornamentation and passage-work. In the present days of HIP material, we must look for the autograph for an authoritative edition, but it has long been lost. There are only four early copies, each of them with different slurs, bowings and phrasing marks, complete with obvious mistakes in copying the notes themselves. Probably the most authoritative is the copy by Anna Magdelena, Bach's second wife, but comparing the real autograph of the probably near-contemporaneous Sonatas for Solo Violin with her own copy of the violin sonatas, researchers have shown that she also added a number of markings herself. Bärenreiter has published an edition based on all four extant copies, which Quirine Viersen used in her preparation for this recording.

The scores themselves are, as so often with Bach, almost bereft of clues for the interpreter. Apart from a key signature, a few tuning instructions and little or no dynamic marks, cellists have to work out their own combinations of bowing, loudness, phrasing, ornamentation and even general speed of each movement. Since most of the movements are dances of the Baroque French type, such as bourrée, gavotte and gigue, the standard pace of each dance would be well-known to musicians of the day, so there was no need for Bach to write them down. The modern cellist, however, is faced with an almost infinite number of choices. There can be no "best" or "most authentic" performance. In essence, the Suites provide a wonderful example of how Music is unique within the Arts, in that at least one second creator has to be involved in its production. Thus every performance of the Cello Suites is unique; it depends on the musician's creativity, sparked from a basic template provided by Bach. Great richness of human creativity is thus involved in each performance.

A further complication in our general view of the Bach Cello Suites is that Bach did not write them for the "cello" that we have known for nearly a century. The cello was one of the last of the Violin family to be developed; it existed under development for a century or so around 1700 in a wide variety of shapes and sizes in Europe, and these were given a confusing set of names. Indeed, the Renaissance viola da gamba remained the 8' pitched string instrument in many orchestra well into the Classical period of Mozart's time, being only slowly replaced by the new-fangled, expensive cellos.

Sigiswald Kuijken's research has provided convincing evidence that the cellos most likely found at the court of Cöthen at the probable time of the Cello Suites's composition was the violoncello da spalla (from the Italian for "shoulder"), which was held horizontally at the chest, against or on the right shoulder, and could easily be played by a violinist. A smaller version of this, with 5 strings, was specified by Bach for Suite no. 6 as a "violoncello piccolo" (small cello). Later, a cello appeared in Italy which was "da gamba", i.e. held between the knees, and this only slowly made its way into the small German courts where Bach worked. Later the end-pin or spike was added by Servais at the middle of the C19th (he was too fat to hold the cello between his knees!), and other changes shortening the neck and advances in stringing were needed to give the cello a solo presence when playing concertos with a large orchestra. To hear the da spalla cello in the Bach Suites, go to Kuijken's RBCD or Bach: Cello Suites 1-6 - Terakado (if you can find a cheap copy).

The choice of recordings of the Bach Suites is magnificent. All the great master cellists have contributed, from Casals to Rostropovich, Yo Yo Ma, Isserlis, Meneses, Starker, Schiff and Tortelier to name a few. There are also fine performances by young, lesser-known artists, of which Quirine Viersen is one. She might be familiar to readers from her previous SACDs (Haydn: Cello Concertos 1-2 - Viersen, de Vriend & Gliere: Cello Concerto, Horn Concerto - Viersen, Erkalp, Soustrot) which have been acclaimed. Daughter of a cello player in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, she uses the Bärenreiter edition, but says that eventually she just followed her musician's instincts to inform her interpretations. Her Joseph Guarnerius Filius Andrea cello of 1715 has probably been much modified from its original form, but has a wonderfully characterful tonal range which she exploits to the maximum.

Viersen requested that her recording take place in a church, not just for the supportive acoustic, but for its spiritual and contemplative atmosphere where she could concentrate fully. Using for comparisons well-thought of other SACD versions by Janos Starker (Bach: Cello Suites 1-6 - Starker) and Hidemi Suzuki (Bach: Cello Suites 1-6 - Suzuki), I would say that her performance is closer to Starker, but with less of his muscularity and occasional abrasiveness. Her emotional level is much higher than that of the period-instrument Suzuki, who seems to constrain his emotionality and dynamics. Her Preludes are more questing than assertive, but she always manages to find their emotional climax. She is also discursive in the fiendishly difficult and often wayward Allemandes, with their complex conversational lines, but for me her most memorable readings are of the Sarabands, which really come alive in her hands. They range from the inconsolable (D minor Suite) to the nobly serene (C major Suite) and are all self-communing, with wonderfully rich tone and bow control on their many spread chords.

Unusually, she manages to find more humour than often heard in these Suites, with jaunty "attitude" in the more rhythmic dance. Little chuckle-like turns and throw-away cadences are also very touching. She adds very little in the way of ornaments, mostly discrete trills which raise the temperature of a climax nicely. I was also impressed with her ability to parse the seemingly unending "stream of conciousness" melodies so typical of Bach, and to make the implied separate voices quite conversational, by alternating the dynamics of question-answer sections. There was only one oddity which caught my attention. In the famous little Gavotte of Suite no. 6, instead of playing the top note melody consistently as other players, she splits the second chord to bring out an inner voice, but at the expense of the tune's timing, which thus limps rather than dances. The second time round, it doesn't strike the ear quite so much - but this is an example of that infinite number of options which I mentioned earlier. Overall, her sound is always beautiful, pitch-perfect and imposing, and her playing so intensely communicative that it is no hardship to listen to the two discs at one sitting.

There is little to say about Globe's recording except that it is exemplary for a solo instrumentalist, with no reverberation from the Church to distance the music, just an appropriate resonance complementing the realistic presence of the cello.

Most collectors will already have several sets of the Bach Cello Sonatas and be wedded to their favourites for life. I would, however, urge giving audition to Viersen's already remarkably mature interpretations, as it will be fascinating to hear when next she records the Suites, to hear what more she can extract from them. Recommended.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and


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