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Suites for Cello Solo BWV 1007-1012

Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, Part 5

Continue from Part 4

Donald Satz wrote (February 20, 2001):
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 - This Suite might well be the most austere of the six and the most unusual as well. Instructions call for the tuning of the A string down to G, an example of scordatura which is simply the retuning of one or more strings generally to provide easier playing and/or changes in sonority. Not all performers adhere to the instruction. As an example, Patricia McCarty has a personal preference to use normal tuning.

The unusual nature of the C minor Suite manifests itself immediately in the Prelude which begins with an Adagio in the style of a French Overture with dotted rhythms. Then, a rapid fugal-type section takes over. This music is not for those who are looking for happy times *or* a sure-fire way of ending it all. It would be interesting to witness the Prelude being played repeatedly in a suicide ward - sorry for the digression. It's been a bad day at work, my wife has a very bad migraine headache, my new dog "General Jackson"(a cross between Hitler and Satan) is about to chomp my head off for writing to you and not paying him attention, and my old dog Katie can hardly walk. But I'm in great shape and getting better with every minute of the Prelude. Unfortunately, I most like the very bleak and hopeless interpretations. Overall, this doesn't sound like a good evening coming up.

The lighter versions include Westphal, Beschi, and Bruns; some listeners would likely appreciate these three more than I do. I find Ma I, Bylsma, and ter Linden relatively relaxed performances not sufficiently dynamic. Maisky is much too romanticized, with Casals, Schiefen, and Rostropovich not far behind. Sheppard provides a choppy reading not particularly rewarding to me. Wispelwey is sufficiently dark in mood but drags a little.

The better versions include Ma I, Fournier, Kirshbaum, Dieltiens, and Pergamenschikow. Ma I and Fournier give powerful performances. Kirshbaum delivers the best fugue of all the versions with Pergamenschikow and Dieltiens giving excellent fugues of attractive flow and bounce.

Patricia McCarty's performance is, in my opinion, the outstanding one of the group. When McCarty is at her best, her viola wonderfully portrays the mournful and desperate corridors of life. That's just what she does in the C minor Prelude. Although her performance is not one of the slower ones, it is beautifully spacious and fully envelops me. McCarty's adagio strikes to the heart, and her fugue is also of very high quality. This reading is the personification of darkness.

The Allemande is slow, dark, and mournful music with dotted rhythms. Maisky, at over 7 minutes, has one of the slowest versions and a lovely one. It's quite relaxed and a pleasure to listen to. The only problem is that it lacks some "angst" which I tend to want in a performance of this music. McCarty's viola just can't seem to give the music sufficient weight; her performance is fine although the tone is a little romantic. Beschi is bass-heavy and excessively powerful; his slurring regimen represents a battle zone. The only way I can get value from the reading is to play it at a low volume.

Pergamenschikow, Ma I, and Bylsma are somewhat light in approach and quite relaxed; it's a style I appreciate but ultimately find a little undernourished. Other listeners might well find these three versions highly rewarding. Rostropovich turns on the romantic burners full-force. That's just the first theme; he escalates matters in the repeat. The second theme continues along the same vein. I find it impossible to enjoy this performance. Fournier isn't as romantic as Rostropovich, but he's skirting that boundary. Casals skips both repeats which accounts for a timing of slightly over 3 minutes which doesn't do justice to the movement. Schiefen begins with a sledgehammer delivery and continues slamming away, providing a performance which has been typical of his style. For this Allemande, he and Rostropovich would make a unified duo.

Very fine readings are given by Kirshbaum, Dieltiens, Westphal, and Wispelwey. Each one displays good projection, effective slurring, and the requisite darkness and mournfulness.

Ma II and Bruns are excellent versions. Bruns provides a martial atmosphere and delightfully brings out the dotted rhythms. Ma II is slow and powerful. The outstanding performances come from Sheppard and ter Linden. Sheppard's cello is so expressive, conversational, and mournful/dark. ter Linden strikes a perfect balance between relaxation and tension. Both Sheppard and ter Linden are hypnotic.

Enter the conquering hero. He is no paragon of virtue, but a merciless and relentless warrior who takes no prisoners. This third movement is a French-style Courante. In his liner notes, Wispelwey refers to the movement as having a "clenched fist". I think that description is right on target. The music is demonstrative, highly angular, possesses dotted rhythms, and reminds me of a hero who obliterates every shread of the enemy's existence. There is no comfort and lyricism is slight; destruction is our hero's aim and the only urgency in his life is a love of killing and torture. I can only imagine what the bellicose and romantic Guido Schiefen will do with this movement.

Actually, Schiefen isn't bad. Yes, he is again too romanticized, slurring is exaggerated and lengthy, and the emotions keep shifting from strength to mush. But his pacing is fairly good. I was just expecting much worse, and that's what I get from Rostropovich. Instead of a strong and relentless hero, he gives me a soft-boned chump. The man is much too relaxed, and the music sags greatly. It's the "easy chair" version. Although better, McCarty's tone is too romantic for me. ter Linden's performance has a demure quality which I consider a significant failing.

Maisky, Pergamenschikow, Wispelwey, Dieltiens, Bylsma, Beschi, Ma I, and Westphal give fine performances. Maisky's first subject is excellent, but he tends to get mushy in the second subject. Pergamenschikow, Ma I, and Bylsma are forceful but in a slithering way which is not in-sync with our hero who stands tall and proud. Wispelwey and Dieltiens are blustery in the first theme but somewhat soft in the second. With Beschi, the tempo is very slow, and the hero is trying desperately to get up from the sea of body parts that engulfs him. It's an interesting approach but not as rewarding as a few others. Westphal is very good, but I think the viola is at a disadvantage in this music.

Bruns, Ma II, Casals, and Kirshbaum are excellent. Each one is strong and projects a fierce individual. Sheppard and Fournier are outstanding. Sheppard's first theme is almost beyond description -sort of a "slash and burn" approach. She does let up some in the second theme. Not so with Fournier who is menacing throughout. You wouldn't want to be in the proximity of the heroes of these two readings.

The Sarabande is quite unusual: no double-stops, one voice, and harmonically desolate. The music is mournful to the core and gives the impression of time moving slowly and inexorably. I prefer versions which deliver a build-up of suspense as the movement progresses; this gives the music more variety of expression and a "mission". Most of the 18 versions do not have any strong build-up of suspense: Sheppard, Bruns, Fournier, Kirshbaum, Dieltiens, Ma I, Wispelwey, McCarty, ter Linden, Westphal, Bylsma, Beschi, and Pergamenschikow. In addition, Dieltiens, Bylsma, ter Linden, Pergamenschikow, and Kirshbaum are much too relaxed to even give the appearance of any significant tension. Fine tension is provided by Ma II, Schiefen, and Casals. Maisky is even better except that his tone is very much on the romantic side.

From his liner notes, it is clear that Rostropovich loves this Sarabande and it shows in the performance. There's great tension right from the start which keeps building up toward the half-way point of the movement. Since Rostropovich keeps the romanticurges in check, his version is easily the best reviewed. With this piece, Rostropovich has finally come up with the best movement of all versions and reveals just how good his set might have been if he stayed away from exaggerated romanticizing.

The next movement is a Gavotte I/II. Gavotte I only provides a little relief from the rigors of the Sarabande; the music is abrupt, has multiple stops, and is highly angular. This is very nervous music. Gavotte II has a somewhat haunting aura with the cello continuously whirling about mysteriously.

Wispelwey is on the slow and weak side with reduced angularity and emphasis on the multiple stops; he definitely smooths out the music and makes it relatively benign and not very rewarding. Switch to Bruns and listen to an even slower performance loaded with angularity, strength, and heroism to boot. Fournier stretches the music to over five minutes with a very strong reading. However, Gavotte I comes off sounding mostly as bluster entailing little nuance and an exaggerated relentless quality. Schiefen's performance also exceeds five minutes and has reduced angularity and a 'fat' tone. To his credit, Schiefen is well nuanced and more enjoyable than either Wispelwey or Fournier.

Although Dieltiens and Ma I are very relaxed, they are highly lyrical; if a sedate mode is your preference, either would serve excellently. For the opposite of sedate, give a listen to Beschi's strongly martial reading. Kirshbaum is also a little laid-back in both Gavottes. Maisky, Bylsma, and ter Linden tend to slide their way through Gavotte I. Westphal sounds somewhat undernourished in Gavotte I, and Gavotte II has little mystery. Pergamenschikow's phrasing is more choppy than angular, resulting in a performance no better than Fournier's or Wispelwey's.

Among the better versions, both Sheppard and Beschi are very strong. Sheppard is heroic, Beschi is militaristic. I prefer Sheppard's more nuanced and lyrical account; the ceremony is stunning. Compared to these two, Bruns and McCarty sound a little subdued, although they are very satisfying issues. Rostropovich is very slow and heroic; it's a great reading until he decides to display romantic ardor. Ma II, less strong than Beschi, compensates with wonderful rhythm and accenting. Casals joins Sheppard at the head of the class with a very strong Gavotte I loaded with razor-sharp accenting and easily the best Gavotte II of the eighteen versions; it whirls beautifully and is pervaded by suspense.

The concluding Gigue is described by Wiwpelwey as "intense and brooding". I don't disagree with that description, but most versions don't come close to being intense experiences. Schiefen and Maisky dig into their bag of romantic affectations and apply many to the gigue; that they can do this without being intense is testimony to the lack of substance of affectations. Pergamenschikow eschews the romantic angle; unfortunately, he's even less intense than Schiefen and Maisky, and sounds like a day in the park. McCarty does not exert herself much; she's just being lazy. Weak projection damages Bylsma's reading. In this little grouping of six, only Casals is a "keeper"; more on him later.

In the second group, Ma II tends to linger at the end of phrases resulting in a performance which is a combination of relaxation and affectation. Kirshbaum is low on intensity. Westphal is an improvement on McCarty, but I'd like more bite to the performance. Fournier and Bruns are moderately successful at providing intensity. Beschi's strong and dark reading is the easy winner among these six issues.

Wispelwey might have made the "intense and brooding" remark but I don't detect much of either feature in his reading; this applies even more to Dieltiens. Sheppard and ter Linden are moderately intense. Ma I is entirely smoothed over and not pleasureable at all. Rostropovich hangs in there with a fairly intense reading and little "over the top" material.

Overall, I consider most of the performances of the C minor Gigue to be weak and somewhat benign. Only Beschi and Casals really provide significant intensity, with or without any brooding.

For the Suite in C minor, my favorites are Sheppard and Casals. This is music which has huge elements of power and darkness. Both artists have been showing these traits, and the C minor Suite gives them the opportunity to shine. I'm not surprised that I wouldn't think very well of Wispelwey for this work, but Ma I's less than memorable performances do surprise me.

Update: With one Suite remaining, no one version is emerging as an essential purchase. With the exception of Guido Schiefen's set, any of them could well satisfy listeners with consideration of individual taste. Personally, I tend to prefer strong projection. I'm not referring to loud playing, but a strength of delivery which does require some decent level of instrument projection. This might be a holdover from my hard rock formative years, but it is very important to me. That's why the Wispelwey version is not one of my favored performances, and why I am currently rating Andrew Manze quite low in my review of Bach's Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord.

Among the period instrument sets, Sheppard and Beschi project much better than Blysma, Wispelwey, and ter Linden; Bruns projects fairly well. The only problem with Sheppard and Beschi involves some rather unmusical performances; they don't dominate the two sets, but they do lead to downgrading the quality of the interpretations. Folks like Fournier, both Ma's, and Kirshbaum have the advantage of rarely giving less than rewarding performances. This consistency currently has them at the top level. Sheppard, Beschi, Casals, and Westphal are not far behind.




Continue on Part 6


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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