Suites for Cello Solo BWV 1007-1012
Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, Part 4
Continue from Part 3
Donald Satz wrote (January 9, 2001):
Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 - The Prelude is very interesting. It can be looked at as a long musical line interrupted by cadenzas which I think are quite similar to short fantasias. The long musical line, at first blush, sounds like scale playing. Variety of expression is crucial for a feeling of monontony not to set in; some versions are not wide in expression. The music is majestic and needs to be played assertively; some versions are relatively soft-centered. There is a modulating and dramatic passage in the second half which requires the greatest strength from the performer; many versions are too weak and some even lose strength.
Schiefen is alone on the lowest level; he sounds as if he's playing scales, and that's not acceptable. Better versions, but not particularly memorable, come from Rostropovich, Bruns, Maisky, Kirshbaum, Dieltiens, Casals, Sheppard, and Pergamenschikow. It could well be that Casals is better than he sounds, but the sound quality of his cello is very harsh.
Bylsma gives a strong performance at average tempo. Westphal is fast and strong. Ma I would have been outstanding except for the loss of strength in the second half of the Prelude. Wispelwey starts off with the best pacing of all the versions, but he later goes soft. Ter Linden provides a very nice and introspective reading. Ma II is the slow version I like best.
Patricia McCarty, Paolo Beschi, and Pierre Fournier make the music special, and not just on a sporadic basis such as Bylsma and Wispelwey. McCarty is strong and majestic from the start and just keeps getting stronger and more urgent; then she relaxes some before gaining additional strength. You can really feel the energy building up and being released. For tension and a sense of serious business going on, McCarty can't be beat. Also, her cadenza-type passages are wonderful. Fournier is aristocratic, assertive, and very sad at times. It's the best "straight-up" version I've heard to date.
Beschi provides me with the most rewarding reading. His quick pace is refreshing and still quite powerful and dark. Like McCarty, Beschi is great with engergy flows. Just listen to the swirling of energy at 1'45" into the piece; it's a stroke of genius. Also, nobody shows the strength and wonderfully crisp accenting in the second half that Beschi displays.
The E flat major Allemande is highly agreeable music presented in a relaxed and conversationally stimulating manner. Bylsma, Fournier, Wispelwey, and Dieltiens do well in providing highly lyrical readings, but they are low on conversation and good examples of being too relaxed to engage in stimulating interaction. Pergamenschikow's soundstage is perfect, but he is also not sufficiently stimulating - too little vertical projection. Casals uses too much legato for my taste and there's a horrible sounding note at 51" into the movement; it wouldn't normally be a big deal, but in this performance it's what stands out in my mind. Maisky and McCarty sound quite romantic in tone, and I find it a turn-off; however, they are certainly conversational and provide a fine variety of expression. Ma II is overly subdued in the first subject but does generate more energy in the second subject. Ma I has more bounce to it but still is too subdued.
Westphal takes the fast route at just over three minutes; ter Linden is in the five minute range. I feel that Westphal gets nowhere with her speed; she is jerky and sounds like she wants the conversation to end now. Surprisingly, I find that Bruns is somewhat mundane and staid in the first subject. Kirshbaum's accenting is not crisp and vertical projection is weak. Guido Schiefen does not sound good at all: too romantic and alternately gruff.
The highly rewarding versions are from Rostropovich, Beschi, ter Linden, and Sheppard. Swirling notes play a significant role in the E flat major Allemande and insert an element of confusion into the conversation. I love the way Rostropovich spins those swirling notes and makes the confusion an integral part of the conversation. Beschi's performance is very strong but always affable and highly conversational in a satirical manner. Sheppard's conversation is more tutorial than on an equal basis; however, the guidance is always given with kindness.
ter Linden takes first prize by a wide margin. He is quite slow and serene in his relaxation. Yet, projection is consistently strong and the interaction is very stimulating with the voices taking turns being assertive and demure. He has the swirling notes, affable manner, satire, and kindness in abundance. It's the contrast of serenity and stimulation which catapults ter Linden's performance over the others.
The French-style Courante is happy and playful music with a strong degree of restlessness for contrast; much of the restlessness is provided through the multiple stops and sharp accenting in the movement. Three versions are very soft in the first subject without providing any offsets to the loss of restlessness: both Ma peformances and ter Linden who also has way too much legato; ter linden's version is the least attractive of the eighteen.
Schiefen is quite loud and overbearing. Wispelwey and Westphal are very fast, generic, and scratchy. Sheppard is almost as fast as Wispelwey; she isn't generic, but she is inappropriately romantic at times. Bruns projects strongly but sounds very relaxed with low restlessness; this results in low interest for me. Fournier and Maisky emphasize the legato too much for my tastes. Bylsma and Dieltiens express some fine urgency, but I find their readings too choppy.
Very good versions include Casals and McCarty. Casals is incisive, urgent, restless, noble, and on the slow side. McCarty is full of joy and high spirits. Both Casals and McCarty have their romantic moments. Excellent versions come from Beschi, Kirshbaum, and Rostropovich. Each of them has fine pacing, good speed, playfulness, and urgency; Rostropovich has a rather beefy sound, but I adjusted quickly.
Pride of place for the E flat major Courante is bestowed on Boris Perganmenschikow. He basically provides all that the other artists do. What really makes his performance special are some of the most effective 'swells' I've encountered; they remind me of the superb swells in Casal's G major Sarabande.
The E flat major Sarabande is such gorgeous music that it's easy to just sit back and take it in without thinking of anything else in the world, not even any imagery from the music. I consider it Bach's most beautiful music from the set of the Cello Suites. The movement has many multiple stops, is ever so tranquil, mysterious, noble, and with wonderful counterpoint between the voices. Maisky's, Rostropovich's, and Fournier's performances are fine ones, but their highly romantic cello tone is somewhat of a trial to listen to. If the readings were special, I likely wouldn't focus on that tone; the readings are not special. Schiefen is his usual over-blown self, very loud, and carrying a host of romantic affectations; this version is disposable. I know I originally said that Guido Schiefen was my sentimental favorite, but his favor is wearing thin.
Barbara Westphal has one of the fastest performances, but that's not any problem. What is problematic is a lack of sufficient weight and a rather sour cello sound. McCarty shows that the viola can well provide the requisite weight with a cello sound that rings out beautifully. This might sound like an endorsement of her performance; it isn't. McCarty is even more romantic than Maisky or Fournier with affectations and disagreeable sounding embellishments in abundance.
Tranquility is good for this sarabande, but Ma II shows that there can be too much of it. He's either inducing sleep or beefing up on his romantic nature; "comotose followed by overblown" kills this version. Another thing about Ma II's Sarabande is that it's the first track on the second cd. This doesn't bother me any,but I know plenty of folks who hate it, and I just wanted them to be forewarned. Bruns is very quick and rather superficial with short bow strokes.
Better versions are here. Pergamenschikow, Kirshbaum, Dieltiens, ter Linden, and Casals are highly enjoyable. The outstanding performances come from Sheppard, Ma I, Wispelwey, Beschi, and Bylsma. Sheppard is the best at conveying the music's mystery, Beschi has no peer for examining the counterpoint, Wispelwey is deliciously tranquil throughout and along with Ma I delivers the most beautiful performances. That leaves Bylsma who has the best pacing and is exceptional in every other area as well; he's my favorite in the E flat major Sarabande.
The Bourree I/II are next. Bourree I is very agreeable music with relatively sharp edges and multiple stops; Bourree II is very short with a strong droning quality; it is as if it's time to give thought to whether being so cheerful is realistic. A version that's upbeat with good projection, sharp lines, and a thought-provoking second subject wins my approval. Every one of the eighteen performances catches the essence of the music with a fine degree of satisfaction and minimal romanticizing. This even includes Guido Schiefen who acquits himself well. Anner Bylsma, by far, has the fastest verson, and he handles it with technical aplomb.
My preferred performances come from Pergamenschikow and Wispelwey. Pergamenschikow has an attractive sharpness and quick pace, and his Bourree II has a delightful and incisive drone; it's a very effective contrast. Wispelwey isn't as sharp as Pergamenschikow, but his forward momentum is excellent and the droning is the most effective of all the versions.
The E flat major Gigue provides a rousing conclusion to the Suite. The music lends itself very well to a fast, impetuous, urgent, and exciting experience. When listening, I have the image of pirates having a great time at the fire on the shore after supper. One of them is playing the music, others are dancing, and the remainder are exuberantly clapping their hands to the beat. The music is not well-manicured; it sounds rough. This is music for "the people".
Bruns, Westphal, Wispelwey, McCarty, and Beschi are very well-manicured and smooth to the point of sounding stately. Sheppard gets it right, but her cello sounds more than rough; it sounds disagreeable. Kirshbaum's idea of when to apply legato and staccato are often at odds with my preferences; regardless, listening to this version is to experience an overdose of "smooth". Maisky presents a host of problems; he's too smooth, stately, and lacking excitement. Maisky's worst feature is that he tries to give excessive depth to the gigue; he's definitely not one of "the people", and he gives the piece just what it doesn't need.
When Guido applies a "stop", he does it with a vengence. The best I can say about this performance is that it's no better than Maisky's. Ma I starts off in soft-spoken fashion but does eventually become more demonstrative; his ending is a joke to be enjoyed just once. Fournier just does little for me, but I had trouble putting my finger on the reason. That's because it's an odd one for me - Fournier is too serious. My pirates are having a good old time, and I seriously think that the music was not intended to absorb Fournier's austerity. Dieltiens is too soft-toned to generate much excitement.
Very fine versions are contributed by Bylsma, Rostropovich, Casals, and ter Linden. Even better are Pergamenschikow and Ma II. Both are strongly projected, exciting, and convey great urgency. I should relate that Ma's performance is very much an "in your face" one; that's fine with me for this particular music. Subtlety is not a factor.
Updates: I enjoyed Beschi and Pergamenschikow the most in the E flat major Suite. Beschi was headed toward a fantastic set of performances, but he did not distinguish himself in the Bourree series or Gigue. Still, he is now within striking distance of those few versions I feel have performed better in the first four suites. Pergamenschikow performs much better than in the previous suites, greatly helped by his eschewing most of the affectations he employed earlier.
On the other end, Schiefen is, as usual the least rewarding version. What surprises me some is that Maisky isn't significantly better than Schiefen. There's no magic from Maisky in the E flat major, but there is the prevalence of romanticism hanging in the air. Bruns is disappointing in the E flat major; he's not really into the music as he was in the earlier suites, being rather relaxed and detached. As my son would say, "he's just being lazy on this one".
The next suite, in C minor, is the second and last suite in the minor key. McCarty was wonderful in the Suite in D minor but has not been particularly distinguished in the major key suites. I'm very interested in finding if there's a pattern here.
Continue on Part 5
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