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Suites for Cello Solo BWV 1007-1012

Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Donald Satz wrote (December 21, 2000):
Cello Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009 - Switching to the relatively open and heroic key of C major, the Prelude is quite a piece of music. It is a virtual compendium of how to play the cello: scales, trills, all kinds of articulation and bowing techniques, etc. It's a treasure trove of technical variety. My view is that the emotional variety is abundant as well; the last thing I want from this prelude is for the performance to load me up with one mood type or style of playing.

Average timings for the Prelude are under 3 1/2 minutes. Maisky takes about four minutes as he luxuriates in the music. Unfortunately, this slow tempo plus all the romantic affectations Maisky exhibits makes his reading a loud non-starter.

The part of the Prelude I enjoy most involves a very long drone-like passage mid-way through the movement followed by an exciting build-up and release of energy. For this section to have any impact, the drone passage must not be greater in energy than what follows. Schiefen, Casals, and Rostropovich totally reverse the sequence; the build-up becomes a let-down and excitement never exists. These three versions are also non-starters.

Dieltiens is very fast and often uses bow strokes which I consider too short; it tends to be a "chicken-scratch" performance with no time to savor anything. Bylsma's tempo is close to Dieltien's, and his performance lacks sufficient lyricism *and* strength. Wispelwey displays plenty of lyricism, but he tends to under-project and I would have liked more emotion conveyed although his conclusion has ample weight.

McCarty gives a good performance, but there's quite a romantic tone to her reading which I find less than desireable. Kirshbaum does an outstanding job with the drone passage and resulting build-up and release of energy, but his reading sounds a little uninvolved up to that point. Pergamenschikow provides a fine interpretation with some crisp playing; although I like that, he is as fast as Bylsma and misses some emotional involvement.

Both Ma versions are quite similar and quite good. In fact, they are both excellent in the second half of the movement but not as incisive in the first half. Sheppard is very good as well, just not as distinctive as the best versions.

Now for the real good stuff. Most of the time, reducing the volume control does not add to my musical enjoyment. Barbara Westphal's performance, however, sounds best at a relatively low volume. It goes from being loud to exhibiting a mysterious aura that totally draws me in. She plays her notes sharply and with a high degree of angularity (especially compared to McCarty), but she never loses her sights on musicality. Westphal's drone passage and aftermath are close to perfect. But it's her conclusion which I most appreciate - fantastic accenting, slurring, and dynamics.

Paolo Beschi's opening descent and quick ascension are perfectly executed; it feels as if the bowels of the earth are churning upward. His sense of urgency and danger is outstanding; his conclusion is very powerful. I do want to caution that those who prefer modern cello might well detest Beschi's version.

Fournier uses an irresistable legato approach through much of the Prelude; it's very distinctive and effective. His drone passage/build-up is superb, and you couldn't ask for a more aristrocratic reading.

Jaap ter Linden's the guy for a great mainstream performance at moderate tempo. His lyricism is stunning, and he misses nothing provided by the other versions. ter Linden's drone passage is a piece of perfection, and the energy release is complete.

Saving the best for last brings us Peter Bruns who easily delivers the most exciting performance of all. It's quick, suspenseful, urgent, stressful, angular, swirling, and highly assertive. The reading is quite distinctive, but I can't imagine anyone not responding well to it.

The C major Allemande is very agreeable and conversational music of a ceremonial and playful nature where the second theme transposes the first bar of the first theme. My favorite part of the Allemande is the ascending passage of the first theme set off by the bass line.

Guido Schiefen's performance isn't bad at all. It has plenty of energy and fine lyricism. I do find that his relatively long bow strokes combined with a chunky tone reduce the playfulness of the music. Peter Bruns is less enjoyable; he's surprisingly smooth and not very interesting.

Pablo Casals also has some long bow strokes but he doesn't allow them to reduce playfulness. His reading has a thoroughly enchanting swagger and fantastic first theme ascending passage as well as an attractive air of aristocracy. Ma I makes greater use of short bow strokes as he provides a highly varied account of great playfulness and ample strength. Ma II is smoother than I but still very playful and full of life. Maisky's reading is very similar to Ma I but not as lean in tone and with greater variety of tempo. Although the performance takes well over 4 minutes, it never sounds slow at all.

Anner Bylsma is quite slow and highly lyrical; it's a lovely and poignant performance which can't be beat in providing a strong sense of conversation at an intimate and elegant dinner. This reading doesn't quite fit in with my basic conception of the music, but it's a great interpretation. Kirshbaum is also slow but hardly intimate; it is a fine and lively reading that's a little too smooth and romantic in tone. Pergamenschikow is very slow and seems even slower; it's a performance that tends to drag while Bylsma's slow reading sparkles. Another version which drags a little comes from Dieltiens; unlike Blysma, Dieltiens does not sound intimate or elegant. Instead there's a rustic aura to the music which is enjoyable up to a point.

Paolo Beschi delivers a playful and swaggering account, but others do also and with greater tonal beauty. Pierre Fournier uses much legato, but I don't feel it works as well here as in the Prelude. Fournier also doesn't get much out of the ascending passage in the first theme. Wispelwey's performance is the slowest one being reviewed; it's very good but a little low on exuberance. Although ter Linden is just a little quicker than Wispelwey, he generally delivers more energy. Unfortunately, his ascending passage is a mess and he drags some in the second theme. Susan Sheppard is too laid-back without any corresponding advantages. Rostropovich plays it straight and with little tonal beauty.

Patricia McCarty also gives a 'straight' and quick performance which is too romantic in tone and has minimal variety and depth. Barbara Westphal is no better but for different reasons; she's faster than McCarty and sounds rushed. More significantly, the ceremonial aspect of the music is reduced.

Bylsma gives my favorite reading of the C major Allemande. He takes the music to a unique world of conversation, elegance, beauty, and poignancy. And this from the man who had one of the worst preludes.

The C major Courante is fast, mercurial, and possesses great forward momentum and excitement. Kirshbaum delivers all this superbly; it's a dynamic and highly musical reading. I can't say the same for Pergamenschikow; he likes to halt after phrases, and I find that it damages the music's flow significantly and eliminates any excitement. Although Pergaqmenschikow's tempo is as fast as Kirshbaum's, he seems to drag some while Kirshbaum speeds by. Ma II has the pacing on target, but his performance has a heavy sound to it which I feel doesn't work well for this courante; also, Ma has some cute moments in the second subject which detract from my enjoyment.

Dieltiens take a three minute piece of music and extends it almost four minutes. The speed is gone as well as the excitement. However, it's a great interpretation. He replaces the missing elements with a conversational flow and singing lyricism which are irresistable. Bylsma and Ma I are "Gould" fast. Compare them to Kirshbaum the greater lyricism and excitement in Kirshbaum's reading is evident. However, Bylsma does give me fine pleasure. I find that Sheppard chops up the music too much; when she refrains, the performance is quite effective. Bruns is a little better than Sheppard, although he is still too choppy. Wispelwey gives a nice and agreeable performance a little short on excitement and long on hesitations.

ter Linden gives one of the slower performances. It does remind me of Dieltien's even slower reading, but without Dieltien's level of lyricism. Beschi is fast with a good flow, but I find little tonal beauty in his delivery. Fournier is very good with a reading similar to Kirshbaum's except for a lower level of exuberance and perhaps too much legato. Maisky starts off well but won't leave it at that; by the repeat of the first theme, he gets cute, hesitates, softens, and slurs excessively, displaying all the elements of mannerisms. That's too bad, because he was on his way to a great interpretation.

Guido Schiefen's fat and unattractive tone combined with "rests" of excessive lengths makes his slow version a non-starter. Another slow version comes from Rostropovich; it either sounds relaxed or stodgy. What I am sure of is that the tonal beauty is lacking as has often been the case with Rostropovich up to this point. Casals provides a well paced and classical reading which just does not have the lightness of Kirshbaum's. Westphal's fast paced performance is also quite good with excellent momentum and excitement. McCarty's viola version is slower and uses much more legato than Westphal; I prefer Westphal's faster tempo.

Summming up on the C major Courante, Kirshbaum and Dieltiens are wonderful alternatives which easily surpass the other versions. Kirshbaum strikes me as giving an almost perfect performance of speed, lyricism, and excitement, all in a mecurial cocoon. Dieltiens's slow and conversational reading of ceremonial proportions gets my vote over Kirshbaum.

With the C major Sarabande, the mood changes greatly. This is the time for regret, sadness, melancholy, and utter resignation; the spirit is sinking slowly but irrevocably. Some of the performances are quite slow at close to or above five minutes; that's fine with me since a sense of slow pacing and deliberation seems natural to my conception of this sarabande. I also prefer a low volume which better conveys the acceptance of the human decline (my perception again).

The slower versions come from Kirshbaum, Fournier, Ma II, Rostropovich, Maisky, and Schiefen. Kirshbaum, Rostropovich, and Maisky are highly conversational, and that aspect heightens interest in their respective readings - they have much to tell the listener. Ma II and Fournier, although fine performances, don't reach that high conversational level for me. Schiefen is not competitive as he emotes excessively and loudly.

Among the other modern instrument performances, Barbara Westphal and Pablo Casals deliver highly conversational readings which are excellent. McCarty, Ma I, and Pergamenschikow give rewarding interpretations; I did think that McCarty could have displayed a greater variety of tone.

Among the baroque cello versions, Dieltiens, Sheppard, Wispelwey, Bruns, Beschi, and ter Linden could all be more expressive, interesting, and conversational. The exception is Bylsma whose variety of articulation adds to the conversational nature of his reading.

Of the six excellent versions noted above, I have the most affection for Kirshbaum, Westphal, and Maisky. Each allows me to enter a world of intimate conversation and confession. In addition, each version is always well projected and expertly executed.

Next is the Bourree series I/II. Bourree I is happy and angular music with a fine swagger to it; Bourree II is smoother and reflective of a wider range of emotions. Both Ma versions are relatively soft-toned without much of a swagger, but their Bourree II's are very fine. Bruns, ter Linden, Westphal, Dieltiens, Schiefen, and Sheppard have plenty of swagger but provide little excitement in Bourree I. Beschi is low on excitement and swagger; his Bourree II is very limited in expression. Bylsma's version is the fastest by a wide margin and one-dimensional.

Kirshbaum is very fast in Bourree I; surprisingly, the speed doesn't enhance the excitement; his Bourree II does not venture far from the emotions in Bourree I except when he ventures into the romanticized zone. I do not like Kirshbaum's Bourree II at all. Rostropovich gives us a very slow Bourree I, but it has an elegant swagger that's irresistable. Unfortunately, his Bourree II is much too soft, goes nowhere, and loses my attention well before its conclusion. Fournier's Bourree I is also slow and wonderful, and his Bourree II leaves Rostropovich in the dust. I can do without Maisky's slurring, hesitations, and other affectations in Bouree I; his Bourree II isn't much better. Pergamenschikow is also non-competitive with no swagger at all and a staid Bourree II. Wispelwey's Bourree II is very expressive, but his Bourree I has little swagger.

The outstanding versions have much in common. They have the swagger down pat, they are exciting (or convey an equally desireable feature), and they understand the need for 'contrast' between the two bourrees. I am surprised at the number of performances where the mood is essentially the same between the two bourrees. The upper echelon has Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, and Patricia McCarty. Casals' Bourree I is very exciting and aristocratic, the Bourree II is reflective. McCarty's performance has a very nice rustic tone to it; the Bourree I has excitement in abundance and II is a reading of fine urgency. My favorite version comes from Fournier whose swagger, excitement, and projection is second to none in Bourree I even though he's quite slow; Bourree II is the best of the group with its highly conversational features.

The C major Suite closes with the Gigue, music which is cheerful, playful, and robust. This one has many octave leaps and drone-like passages with the first subject being more robust and angular than the second. Dieltiens does not seem to give much priority to forward motion or strong projection; I feel that this tendency disturbs the music's flow and restricts the robust nature of the music. The best feature of Dieltien's reading is its highly rustic atmosphere. Ma I is quick and conveys the basic elements, but I find his cello tone much too astringent. Beschi is on the slow side with little momentum; his seamless legato in the first subject is not appreciated. Kirshbaum is fine in that he's playful, robust, and cheerful. My problem with him is his romantic cello tone which comes to center stage too often; this is rustic music, not Viennese schmaltz. McCarty suffers even more than Kirshbaum from the romantic bug; these two performances are difficult for me to listen to.

Very good and on target performances come from Rostropovich, Bruns, Wispelwey, Bylsma, Sheppard, Maisky, Casals, Pergamenschikow, Ma II, and even Guido Schiefen. Each of them possesses fine forward momentum among other virtues.

Westphal is outstanding; she delivers the most exciting reading of the group and is a role-model for playfulness combined with strength. Quite a few of the versions present a "kinder and gentler" C major gigue, and ter Linden is the best of them. He's highly conversational, relaxed but never dull, and strong when needed.

Fournier's gigue takes top honors. This is a majestic reading of strength, momentum, and rhythm. I could say that Fournier is relentless, but he never sounds that way. His heroic swagger is not to be missed, and I feel that his C major Suite is the best overall version.

Comments - As I'm looking over my notes, there's two items that catch my attention. With little exception, my perception is that the romantic excessess come from the modern cello versions. At the same time, I don't currently have any baroque cello versions close to the top level; they tend to be bunched together in the middle. The main reason is a general lack of consistency, but I do want to emphasize that the upside is a predilection take risk. Magical Performances always involve taking the less travelled road.

I haven't said much about the famous Casals set. At least on the EMI set, he has some fierce sound to contend with - a fierce sounding cello starts off with a big disadvantage. Usually, Casals overcomes the sound quality. The highlight so far of his set is the G major Sarabande, a magical performance of great depth. I don't consider his interpretations to be romantic; actually, given the time period, they are classical in nature.




Continue on Part 4


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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