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Suites for Cello Solo BWV 1007-1012

Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Donald Satz wrote (November 18, 2000):
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 - The Prelude is highly introspective and melancholy. One can imagine it to express a person's self-examination of life from the view of opportunities lost, close relationships abandoned or not made, and longings not fulfilled. This isn't cheerful stuff to reflect on, and any great performance has to dig down into the depths of the soul and bring up those hard to face emotions; I also think that the listener has to do so also in order to get the full impact of the music (listener participation). Concerning specifics, the Prelude's first three notes (DFA) set the tone for the piece as they fully convey the music's longing and melancholy. Also, the conclusion consists of a series of chords which can have great impact on the listener whether they are delivered with power or a relatively subtle delivery of longing/sadness.

As usual, I'll start with the versions having little staying power. The conclusion of ter Linden's reading is awful; the ornamentation he adds between the chords is excessively romantic, wayward, and trivializes the music. The rest of his Prelude is fairly good but hardly distinctive and does not offset the conclusion. Pergamenschikow uses his modern cello to give a performance of the conclusion that could be a clone of ter Linden's; elsewhere he's actually better and more expressive than ter Linden, but his is still not a version I would want to return to.

That also applies to Casals whose reading does not impact me at all. I don't care for his phrasing, accenting, or to my ears, his lack of variety; much of the problem might well be his cello tone which sounds somewhat unattractive to me in this movement (as well as others).

The next step up finds Fournier who gives a fine and expressive reading which is a little short of excellent; he holds back too often, most significantly at the conclusion. Overall, I think that Fournier's performance would have fit better into a more demonstrative package, but he doesn't quite get there. If his goal is enhanced subtlety, I don't detect much of it. Guido Schiefen elicts the maximum power available and his conclusion is packed with as much excitement as any other version, but the "fat" tone he uses throughout the piece is not very attractive.

I kept listening to the remaining 13 versions in order to better differentiate their virtues. Each one is at least excellent and very rewarding listening. Some do best in the more powerful passages, others in the more reflective ones. However, a few versions do stand out in my mind compared to the rest:

Patricia McCarty - Her interpretation is at a relaxing tempo and is the most lovely of the 18 versions. McCarty's tonal beauty, accenting, and heart-felt emoting are superb. An extra bonus is that she reminds me of the string playing in the movie "Young Frankenstein" when Cloris Leachman plays to soothe the "Monster". By the way, I just read a review of McCarty's set in American Record Guide; it was complimentary without indicating any special qualities. I think her first two preludes have been very special.

Paolo Beschi - Beschi's G major Suite was great, and he starts off superbly in the D minor Prelude. His is the fastest performance, but that aspect does not dampen in the least the profound reading he delivers - power and poetry in abundance.

Peter Bruns - I've never heard a version of the Prelude as melancholy as this one, and I think it's wonderful. In addition, the urgency of his reading is second to none.

Mischa Maisky - "Mournful and sad" well describes Maisky's performance; in fact, if a listener tends to shed a few tears hearing this prelude, Maisky's version should have the person crying buckets. And his conclusion is power-packed.

Yo-Yo Ma I - Fantastic lyricism awaits anyone listening to Ma's prelude. Ma also provides fine power when called for. His ending does eschew power but substitutes a delicious subtlety.

Yo-Yo Ma II - Looking for a very slow performance of the D minor Prelude? If so, Ma II is your man. His version is about a minute slower than Ma I and is hypnotic. The performance entices one into its web and keeps you there until the end. The conclusion is similar to Ma I.

Anner Bylsma - I like Bylsma's pacing and variety of dynamics best of all. If his lyricism is not as fine as Ma I, it's a close second. The sense of longing in his conclusion is outstanding.

Pieter Wispelwey - This is one "jagged" performance, and I love it dearly. The musicality and deeply-felt emotions Wispelwey provides with this type of interpretation are a wonder to behold. His jagged ending is also superb with depth of large proportion.

Leaving the absolute best for last, we have Roel Dieltiens. The level of subtlety in his reading is uniquely effective, and the ending is drawn out beautifully. I could take in this reading all day long. Listening to it while driving to work this morning, I almost caused two accidents, and it takes a hell of a lot to take my mind off the road. If you want enchanting music to cast a spell over your partner, Dieltens gives an interpretation which oozes sensuality.

For me, the Allemande, in AABB form, expressess intense melancholy and longing, and tends to follow the moods of the Prelude; interval leaps and broken chords strengthen the feelings. Any performance which does not convey these moods is a non-starter. Pergamenschikow is in this category; he has an annoying habit of shortening the very notes that provide most of the longing in the Allemande. Kirshbaum is quick and sounds almost cheerful; he makes the piece into nice music, and I think it's much more than that. Schiefen's performance won't do at all; he's self-indulgent, hits sour notes, plays romantic swells, and just sounds bad. Maisky hits my romantic button negatively; his bass note swells are particularly obnoxious.

Excessive romantic displays and sour note-spinning greatly mar Rostropovich's reading; also, his very fast tempo doesn't help the cause of conveying sadness. Sheppard is not very appealing as she indulges in some questionable ornamentation and sounds somewhat light-hearted yet overly heavy at the same time; her cello becomes oppressive now and then.

There must be a higher level, I found it, and Fournier's sitting on it. However, his reading has a problem I can't escape; many of his bass notes are oppressively emphatic. I don't see Fournier "longing" for a partner; I see him clubbing his partner of choice.

The third level finds a very good reading by Dieltiens; my sole reservation is that he's a little subdued as opposed to subtle. As I'll be noting soon, a very lively reading can have plenty of melancholy and longing. Casals joins Dieltiens; his rather romantic playing and a sour sounding cello preclude great enjoyment. Westphal is to my ears positively "jaunty", and I have mixed feelings about it. The change of pace is pleasureable, but the music's impact is sure reduced. But I'll take Westphal's jaunty reading over Kirshbaum's cheerful one any day. Beschi's reading is a fine one but that last ounce or two of emotion is missing. Ma II is a very good mainstream performance which is a little too bottom heavy. Ma I has a great sense of longing, but I find the reading rather "positive"; I prefer more gravity.

Here are the great performances of the Allemande:

Peter Bruns - His is the only lively and quick reading, other than McCarty's, that manages to retain a high degree of longing and sadness. It's a beautiful and deeply felt performance.

Anner Bylsma - This is easily the slowest version, kind of a slow-motion examination of every note and chord. Initially, I had a problem with the very slow tempo, but persistence did pay off. Once I felt inside the tempo, the music opened up considerably. You couldn't find a performance more melancholy than Bylsma's; it's to the breaking point. And Bylsma does a great job with "broken notes" which add to the intensity of the sadness.

Jaap ter Linden - If you're looking for a great mainstream version of the Allemande, I think ter Linden is the best choice. His tempo, pacing, accenting, note values, depth of feeling, etc., represent close to perfection within the customary boundaries.

Pieter Wispelwey - His version is more animated than ter Linden and he takes more liberties, particularly with dynamics. I love the results. Wispelwey is very creative and inside the music.

Patricia McCarty - Her performance takes first prize. She's relatively quick and very lively. A deep identification with the moods of the piece permeates her reading. Although Bruns does excellently in conveying sadness and longing, McCarty well surpasses him. That she accomplishes all this with the viola, in music which would seem to demand the cello or double-bass, is a tribute to her artistry in this movement.

This must be Intermission, and something has to be said. I am getting increasingly irritated with some performances which contain very ugly, obnoxious, and inappropriately romanticized affectations. The music belongs to Bach - not Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. What might well be a great interpretive decision when performing romantic-era music can turn to absolute garbage in a Bach performance. Does electric shock have to be applied to a few artists for them to get the point? Just pondering and visualizing the possibilities.

After experiencing the very serious content of the Prelude and Allemande, the Courante is such a nice change of pace. This one is fast, exciting, and suspenseful. It also has tempo cessations brought on by sustained notes. My view is that these cessations are advantageous as an integral element of the Courante; when a performer emphasizes them greatly and romantically, they dominate the music, disturb flow, and call attention to themselves. Pergamenschikow certainly has his exciting and suspenseful moments, but it's all ruined by romanticized swell notes to usher in the tempo cessations. To say that his affectations are ugly is an understatement. They border on "evil" stuff, and I intend to stay far away as if it was a new flu strain. It's possible that Pergamenschikow needs an exorcism. The main point is that I see no reason to listen to his reading in the future since there are other versions at least as exciting which don't have any evil ingredients, and many of these versions are on modern instruments. Period instrument performances are also not immune to romanticized ramblings. Take Bylsma, please! He's swelling up all over the Courante and takes the most suspenseful passages and obliterates their inherent impact. If Pergamenschikow needs an exorcism, Bylsma rates at least two of them. Rostropovich only requires one exorcism, but his sour sounding cello makes up for it. Sheppard has a different problem; she appears not fully professional, many of her notes hardly making a sound as if she just missed them. Overall, hers is a disagreeable performance with a host of mannerisms. It's back to overly romanticized performances with ter Linden; I can tell he's just dying to swell up. Beschi is simply too slow; the excitement is gone.

I am surprised that there are so many less than desireable performances of the Courante; perhaps I'm just on a roll. So let's keep going. I was interested in hearing what Guido Schiefen, a rather romantic performer, would do with the Courante. A peek at the timings gave me a taste of what was to come - a very slow reading at 2'40"; Beschi was too slow at 2'20". In addition to the slow tempo, the romanticism and mannerisms of Schiefen's performance are difficult to listen to - very ugly. He also has the longest swells I've ever heard. Casals is also loaded with affectations. Wispelwey slows down the tempo at the worst times, robbing his performance of forward momentum; he's not very exciting either.

Dieltiens does fairly well, but he's too subdued to really elicit much excitement from the music. Bruns and Westphal are very quick and very nervous. I'm all for a healthy degree of nervousness from this Courante, but I feel that they take it too far. Fournier is too laid-back to create much impact. Maisky is a little lack-luster, although he does largely eschew the romanticized route.

Ma I and II are very good, but Ma I is a little too jittery and raw; Ma II could have used a little more power in the delivery. A small deficiency in power is also the only blemish on a very suspenseful reading by McCarty.

While I'm waiting for the almost perfect version, I don't have any problem immersing myself in Kirshbaum's performance. Although he does have a tendency to linger on swell notes, Kirshbaum easily outclasses the others in delivering excitement, and he does it with excellently refined tonal beauty.

The Sarabande is one of my favorite movements of the Suites for Cello. It's a very sad piece which is obvious from the beginning. Two additional crucial elements are the music's vulnerability and its uplifting quality. Of course, beauty must shine through as well. ter Linden shows no vulnerabilty or uplifting qualities; his is a hard, even unyielding reading - I'll pass on it. Beschi also doesn't provide the necessary vulnerability and is quite low on beauty. Pergamenschikow offers low returns on all of the best features of the Sarabande; it's a rather superficial reading.

Rostropovich and Maisky have the basics down well, but they use a bloated tone and extremely slow pace to get there; although enjoyable versions, each one is somewhat overwrought. Wispelwey has an attractive "consort sound", but he seems to plod his way through the Sarabande; the performance, for me, has little spark or uplifting qualities.

The next level up has Susan Sheppard with a fine and incisive performance which is a little lacking in beauty and optimism. Casals is very sad and vulnerable but slightly too romantic for my tastes. Dieltens gives a lovely performance not quite sufficiently uplifting. Westphal has all the ingredients for a great performance but is marginally too "sharp" with a decrease in tonal beauty. Bruns is very enjoyable but has a tendency to emotionally hold back. Guido Schiefen has a great beginning as if sorrow is literally coming up from the bowels of the universe; unfortunately he also tends to play too loudly during uplifting passages, and there aren't too many of those.

Here are the excellent versions:

Anner Blysma's first theme is superb with a quick tempo and much beauty. The sorrow, vulnerability, and appropriate optimism are all there. His second theme isn't quite as good, as the tonal beauty decreases somewhat.

Ralph Kirshbaum begins with fine strength, and the entire reading is well projected and enlightening. His urgency is compelling; however, vulnerability could have been at a higher level. Also, there is some romanticizing going on. This is largely nit-picking, and Kirshbaum is a pleasure to listen to.

That leaves four outstanding issues: both Ma recordings, Fournier, and McCarty. Each one is inside the music with superb vulnerability, tonal beauty, and that uplifting quality. The primary difference between the two Ma issues is that Ma II is more full-bodied. Fournier has a solemn quality that is irresistable. McCarty's version has, among all its virutes, the greatest degree of optimism while never downplaying the inherent sorrow of the music.

It's time now for some swaggering music with Menuet I and II in the usual ABA sequence. Listening to this music, I can see a boastful and ostentatious man swaggering into a crowded dance room as if he was Emperor for life. In Menuet II, the scene changes to a lovely woman gently admonishing the man for his demeanor; he listens intently, and we know why - she has the looks and personality of an angel.

None of the versions of the Menuet series is poor, but the following ones have significant problems: ter Linden, Schiefen, Beschi, Bylsma, Casals, Sheppard, Bruns, and Rostropovich. With each one, tonal beauty is low in Menuet I and the swagger is either not there or exists in a distorted fashion. Rostropovich is particularly perverse in Menuet I with a bloated, ugly, and entirely too romanticized a rea. However, out of these eight versions, he provides the best Menuet II.

Dieltens gives a fine performance with a highly sinister reading of Menuet I. Wispelwey is excellent in Menuet II and a little mannered in I. McCarty, although enjoyable, indulges in some romantic affectations which I don't find effective. Westphal's Menuet I is pure joy, but she diminishes much of the lyricism and beauty of Menuet II through abrupt tempo changes. Pergamenschikow is on good behavior with a very fine Menuet II.

Both Ma versions and Fournier are excellent with appropriate swagger and lyricism. The two best performances come from Kirshbaum and Maisky. Kirshbaum's Menuet I is outstanding; it feels as if the swaggering dancer is coming through my front door. Maisky's Menuet II is magical; only Maisky provides the sense of admonition given so tenderly yet effectively.

The concluding Gigue works best for me when played with sinister enthusiasm in a dark and urgent manner. However, it's also very enjoyable with a happy and bouncy approach. Guido Schiefen takes the happy route but largely fails with a very slow tempo and periods of subdued playing which eradicate any bounce. Maisky picks the sinister approach but delivers it in a highly romanticized fashion with choppy execution; his ending is just pathetic.

Beschi's performance is fairly good, but the degree of urgency is muted. This also applies to Bylsma whose tonal beauty is questionable. Dieltiens, Wispelwey, and ter Linden drag a little due to subdued and relaxed interpretations.

The next level up finds Rostropovich, Ma I, Ma II, McCarty, and Casals. Rostropovich is quite slow and too relaxed for full impact. Ma I is speedy; although it works wonderfully in the first theme, Ma sounds rushed in the second theme. Ma II uses the joyful approach but is a little relentless and lacking variety. McCarty is excellent except for a few romantic affectations. Casals is very good but tends to drag on a few occasions.

These are the excellent versions of the Gigue:

Peter Bruns Sheppard are quite exuberant and sinister with fine urgency. Ralph Kirshbaum gives the best performance using the joyful approach; his tempo is fairly quick, the bounce is excellent, and urgency is very good.

The outstanding performances come from Barbara Westphal, Pierre Fournier, and Boris Pergamenschikow. Each one has the sinister quality with exuberance down pat and possesses much urgency. Fournier has a particularly infectious swaying quality. Pergamenschikow is tough, rough, and maximizes the urgency of the music without becoming unmusical. Westphal gives the fastest performance and shines from the outset.


Pergamenschikow did poorly in the first four movements but redeemed himself in the Menuet series and particularly the Gigue. Still, his performances so far are toward the bottom the pack. Guido Scheifen does occupy the cellar, and Rostropovich isn't far ahead. Each of these three artists tend to be far more romantic and wayward than I would like.

Bylsma improved considerably in the D minor Suite, but even there he has problems with the faster and more exuberant movements. Wispelwey also was much better in the D minor, but he also falls off significantly in the faster pieces. ter Linden's D minor is a major comedown from his G major performance; his Prelude and Sarabande are very disappointing.

Dieltiens, Beschi, Bruns, Sheppard, Casals, and Maisky are doing well. Dieltiens does have a tendency to be a little low-key. Beschi fell off substantially from his excellent G minor performance; Bruns did just the opposite.

Fournier, Westphal, and McCarty are not far from the top level. McCarty made great strides upward from her G major performance, providing the best reading of the D minor Suite; I do wish she would eschew all traces of a romanticized approach.

Both Ma recordings and Kirshbaum are the the best of all. Their advantage over the other versions is based on a consistent level of excellence which the others do not possess. Each one rarely goes off into the world of romanticism; these three versions have been steady as a rock. It's probably reasonable to assume that they will continue along this path.

Continue on Part 3

Suites for Cello Solo BWV 1007-1012: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Cello Suites – Phoebe Carrai | Cello Suites – Robert Cohen | Cello Suites – John Friesen | Cello Suites – Pascal Monteilhet | MD – Cello Suite No. 1

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