Suites for Cello Solo BWV 1007-1012
Bach's Suites for Solo Cello, Part 6
Continue from Part 5
Donald Satz wrote (March 30, 2001):
Suite No. 6 for Cello in D major, BWV 1012 - The most immediate difference between the D major and the previous five suites is that the D major was composed for a five-string cello instead of the customary four string type. Before Bach, no composer had written for cello notes so high. But Bach, in the D major, reaches for the top E string in his unprecendented approach to composition for the cello.
The D major Suite is often referred to as highly virtuosic, supremely confident, dazzling, exuberant, joyful, etc. The difference in emotional state from the darkness of the C minor Suite is significant. However, the D major does have plenty of "bite", and it shows strongly right from the start of the Prelude which I like with a somewhat martial delivery; music can be heroic without double-dotting. Also, this prelude constitutes the only one of the six that is dance music. Bruns is as biting as I could want and with a fine degree of lyricism. Dieltiens's sharpness is much reduced from that of Bruns; it's quite a smooth and soft reading which leaves me relatively unmoved. McCarty is a step up from Dieltiens with a stronger and slow performance; my only reservation is her prevalent use of legato which tends to go stale on me. Maisky is immediately of martial disposition but he sinks into a maudlin mood quickly with the usual romantic tone he employs; I did not enjoy his sometimes overblown performance. Kirshbaum is supremely strong and heroic and easily avoids the romantic excesses and smoothed-over phrasing of Maisky; it's a wonderful reading. Casals takes the smooth route from the onset but otherwise performs very well; he's sure not missing any heroic qualities and his delivery is tense and usually powerful. Overall, the performances of Kirshbaum and Bruns are the ones in this group which win my heart. If "smoothness" is no problem for you, McCarty and Casals should more than satisfy.
In the next grouping, Bylsma is quick with fine bite, but he does hold back some. ter Linden has a little smile in his performance which I find syrupy; however, he plays the more dramatic passages very well. Beschi gives a strong and rather severe performance; I like that very much. On the debit side, he uses a lot of legato. Westphal is also strong, but her pacing is somewhat jerky. Smooth legato is prevalent in the reading from Rostropovich, and it doesn't sound very attractive. On the plus side, he's very strong and compelling. Fournier gives a thrilling performance loaded with effective nuances that distances itself from this field of six; more on him later.
The last group finds Pergamenschikow possessing a smooth delivery and not much else. Schiefen drones on and on for about six minutes with a tiresome performance full of overblown sentiment. In his quest to be distinctive, Schiefen ends up being perverse. Ma II is strong but sounds slightly deliberate. Ma I starts out in a relaxed and smooth mode and very much continues that way throughout the prelude; I'm quite surprised because his tempo is very quick. Wispelwey begins as if he's just enjoying a day of leisure, although when drama strikes he does rise a little to meet the challenge. Still, my usual reservations about Wispelwey's performances apply. Sheppard is somewhat disappointing with a smooth reading which I feel could have been delivered with more strength.
I've likely indicated, one way or another, that I prefer the prelude to be strongly projected, well nuanced, tense, angular, and lyrical. Further, the dance rhythms should be in full display. Bruns, Fournier, and Kirshbaum provide all this. Ultimately, it's Fournier and Kirshbaum who maximize the music's excitement and urgency; they also best present the dance-like nature of the piece.
The second movement Allemande is the longest Allemande of the set. In the slowest performances, it extends to over ten minutes. It has a floating melody which adopts various harmonic structures, but each structure exudes a strong feeling of "home", its security and comfort. From this foundation, great confidence is inherent in the Allemande. I liken it to the confidence humans get from family and community. I am basically looking to each version for the conveying of confidence and comfort, and this is no easy task. Comfort easily veers toward boredom and a cloying atmosphere; this needs to be avoided. How? I think that some angularity and strong accenting are important. I've heard many performances where greater speed is used to avert boredom - this is a dangerous route to take as the faster speed has the capability of damaging comfort.
Rostropovich's comfort level has a cloying effect and the confidence is not high. Throw in the consideration that his reading extends to over ten minutes, and I end up with a version that significantly drags for me. Rostropovich does present much beauty, but that can take a listener only so far for so long. Sheppard certainly lacks nothing in angularity; actually, I find that she uses it too sharply at times and reduces the beauty of the music. Overall, Sheppard's performance exudes little comfort. It's primary advantage over Rostropovich's reading is that it's four minutes shorter. The same applies to Westphal who adds a shrill quality to the proceedings. McCarty keeps going and going, and nothing much happens; this is pleasant but not interesting. Switch to Ma II and listen to how he shapes each phrase so lovingly and with great angularity and accenting; my interest level is very high.
Dieltiens sounds as if he's snaking his way through a drain pipe; the results are cloying and confidence does seem to be of the leeching type. Guido Schiefen wants us to live in a house of drama, crisis, and histrionics - do you know anyone who would want that? Fournier is just much too romantic in tone and manner than I can handle; this is extreme for him. Maisky, not to be outdone by Rostropovich, gives a performance over eleven minutes in length. Initially, Maisky is soft-toned and devotional; the comfort is there but not the confidence. He rarely strays from this subdued position, and when he does, romanticism is hanging in the air. I found myself eagerly awaiting the end of Maisky's reading. Perhaps I lack the patience to appreciate this performance, but I think it's much too sedate. Kirshbaum takes the romanticized route in a manner similar to Fournier, and it affects me the same way.
Better versions come from Ma I, Pergamenschikow, and Casals. Ma I is a fine reading, but it does pale next to his more recent issue. Another step up finds Wispelwey, Bruns, and Bylsma; each is thoroughly idiomatic with fine levels of comfort and confidence.
My special performances are provided by Ma II, ter Linden, and Beschi. Ma seems just about perfect to me; the degree of angularity, beauty, comfort, confidence, and projection blend together superbly. ter Linden is quite smooth but his accenting is incisive; his would be a great home to live in where comfort and support flow continuously and life is well organized. Beschi takes the heroic approach and it works great; this is a very finely etched reading.
The third movement Courante is very upbeat, heroic, and exciting music. Much of the excitement is provided by swirling passages that wind their way through heavy air. I feel the music is best served by performances which are strongly projected and highly angular. These versions simply don't have enough life to them: Bylsma, Wispelwey, Pergamenschikow, Casals, Ma I & II, Dieltiens, Beschi, and ter Linden. Sheppard has strong angularity but a very scratchy quality which I can live without. Maisky maintains his hold on romanticized exaggerations which I find to sound ridiculous - sort of the Bach/Liszt show. Schiefen isn't bad, but he loves to pound out high notes and increase their value.
Better versions are available from Rostropovich and Westphal; each is quick and exciting. Bruns, Fournier, and McCarty are excellent; their delare very strong and heroism is ripe. Best of all is Kirshbaum who provides everything the other fine versions give with the added attraction of fantastic swirling runs.
The fourth movement Sarabande mixes serenity and comfort with an exquisite level of angst which has to be displayed but not take over the movement. Also, this is gorgeous music which should easily penetrate the listener. Technically, multiple stops and slurring are prevalent.
Guido Schiefen adds as much angst as possible; this works very well in the first subject where most of the serenity resides. However, it all gets overblown for the remainder of the performance as Schiefen's emotional balance is skewed. Kirshbaum overdoes the angst right from the start; one would think his entire family had been eliminated. McCarty does not begin well; her legato and stops are weak. Actually, she's sort of the opposite of Kirshbaum and Schiefen. They go too far into histrionics; McCarty gives too little of herself and ends up with a benign performance.
Wispelwey is interesting but not satisfying. He projects very well right from the start; then I begin to notice a monotone and cloying quality to the performance. For me, the reading tends to go nowhere largely based on insufficient contrast and shading. Maisky takes the route taken by Kirshbaum and Schiefen, although in a more subdued manner. Rostropovich is oozing with schmaltz from the first notes; I find this very disagreeable and the least pleasureable version of the eighteen. Fournier is much too strong in the first subject; he sounds as if he's ready to rumble. The more I listen, the more he reminds me of the Rostropovich performance. Thumbs down!
Both Ma readings are very rewarding with a gentle first theme; I prefer Ma I for its quicker tempo and more classical presentation. Pergamenschikow gives a satisfying performance with a fine balance of comfort and angst. Westphal is excellent with her accenting, phrasing, and emotional balances. Bylsma, although generally soft-spoken, projects very well and conveys much detail and conversation. Dieltiens is as good as Bylsma and also tends to be soft-spoken; Dieltiens is more relaxed and legato-driven. Other excellent performances come from Sheppard, Beschi, and Bruns.
Saving the best for last, we have ter Linden and Casals. Although one's on baroque cello, I find the interpretations and execution to be quite similar. Their slurring, stops, note values, and emotional injections and releases are just about perfect.
The fifth movement is a lively, strong, and happy Gavotte I followed by a more subdued and winding Gavotte II. A four minute or longer performance would be rather slow; Rostropovich extends matters to over five minutes. He is rhythmically alert and well projected, so boredom does not seep in. There's also a nobility and majesty in his reading which is very attractive. Switch to Ma I and experience a somewhat sour tone and little majesty. Wispelwey has some strong projection mixed with that subdued and cute phrasing he likes to use. Concerning Bylsma, I would have preferred a stronger delivery in Gavotte I for a livelier experience. The same comments apply to Beschi, but surely not to ter Linden who is very strong and regal in Gavotte I and winds his way wonderfully through Gavotte II. In this group, Rostropovich and ter Linden are the gems.
Kirshbaum shows plenty of strength but engages in some hesitations which I find damaging to the flow. Maisky starts off wonderfully as if he's Sir Lancelot riding home from a thrilling victory; unfortunately, Maisky then has this brave knight become hesitant, weak, histrionic, and a generally poor excuse for a man who can't even find his way home. Pergamenschikow could be stronger, but his is the most lyrical and bewitching version reviewed; there's a youthfulness in the interpretation that's also very compelling. Casals is very good but a little too romantic for my tastes. Westphal and Bruns give performances that satisfy, but it's Pergamenschikow who stands out in this grouping.
In the third group, no version matches the quality of Pergamenschikow or ter Linden. McCarty is the best among Fournier(romantic), Ma II(lack of majesty), Dieltiens(subdued), Sheppard(harsh), and Schiefen(loud).
The last movement Gigue opens with a royal flourish and is jovial in nature with plenty of bite; there's even a little humor in here. I most enjoy the versions having strong projection and a fine display of horizontal expressiveness, lyricism, and urgency. I feel there are nine excellent versions on about the same level: Beschi, Westphal, McCarty, Ma II, ter Linden, Bruns, Fournier, Casals, and Dieltiens. The remaining ones are fairly good except for Schiefen who goes out in a muddle. Overall, for the D major Suite, I favor ter Linden closely followed by Bruns and Casals.
Recommendations on Sets: The further I delved into the different versions of the Cello Suites, the more irritated I became with two particular performing traits. One was underprojection which is most prevalent in the baroque cello sets. The other is exaggeration which belongs more to the modern cello sets. Concerning those two traits, I don't think well of them at all, and their significance shows greatly in my recommendations.
Modern Cello Versions: There is no reason to have Guido Schiefen in your home. His readings are usually coarse and overbearing. I also can't give hearty endorsements to Maisky or Rostropovich; too often they go off into non-baroque territory and give me the impression that they have forgotten that Bach is baroque. Put another way, I don't want their histrionics. Pergamenchikow I did not rate highly, but there is a youthful nature to his playing which I do find very attractive; I'll go with a qualified recommendation for the man. Excellent versions come from Casals, Both Ma versions, Fournier, and Kirshbaum.
Baroque Cello Versions: I can't recommend Wispelwey at all. I've read and heard all the raves, and I don't agree with any of them. He is uniformly subdued and often weak in projection; Dieltiens and Bylsma also have this problems from time to time, but they are much more musical and incisive than Wispelwey. The excellent alternatives are from Bruns, Beschi, Sheppard, and ter Linden. You might not have ever heard of Beschi, but this man's for real in the repertoire.
Viola Versions: Both Westphal and McCarty present very good sets. McCarty is the more romantic, Westphal the more angular. Either set should provide much pleasure unless you can't tolerate the viola, and I don't know of anyone in that category.
Best Set?: Not really. None of them captures my heart on a regular basis. If pressed to choose one baroque and one modern version, I'd likely go with Beschi and Ma II; however, plenty of other combinations would be highly rewarding.
Your Tastes Are Not My Tastes: This is a whole other category. Acquire Wispelwey and/or Maisky, and may God be with you. As for me, I'll try to dish off those two and Rostropovich to loved relatives. Guido Schiefen's set has to be trashed; I'd feel badly even donating it to a library.
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