COMPOSERS: JS Bach
WORKS: Cello Suites Nos 1-6, BWV 1007-12
PERFORMER: David Watkin (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: RES 10147
There have been fine recent recordings of Bach’s suites on Baroque cello, including Richard Tunnicliffe’s characterful accounts (Linn), but this, to me, feels like the set I’ve spent years waiting for.
David Watkin, one of our most inspired continuo players, is a consummate virtuoso. Sympathetically captured in Edinburgh’s Robin Chapel, his performances are alive with a rare joy, effortless spontaneity, technical precision and imaginative fluency.
Just turn to the most awkward, least grateful of the Suites, the fourth in E flat major, and see how he shrugs off the Prelude’s sharp corners in a reading of limpid vivacity, never allowing technical concerns to dictate the line. At the other end of the spectrum, he unlocks all the expressive fullness of the poignant C minor Sarabande, proving that the eloquence of the Baroque bow is more than a match for the projection of the modern cello.
These may be scholarly readings but there’s not a hint of rigidity; indeed, if there was any quibble it would be over his occasional impetuosity. Dance is king, but never at the expense of the harmonic story. Courantes and Bourées are fleet, Gigues jauntily brusque, with a lovely rhythmic flexibility and flair and the Sarabandes are graceful and flowing. The all-embracing warmth of the chords in stately Gavottes and Minuets is simply not possible on the modern instrument. Some exceptionally swift second dances (in the C major and C minor suites, for instance) float past like smoke. The pianissimo playing is revelatory here, the moth-wing timbral delicacy of strings barely brushed. Watkin ends with the bright resonance of a five-string Amati in a radiant D major suite. Hearing such airy ease, it’s almost impossible to believe the devastating news that Watkin recorded this while suffering from the early stages of scleroderma, a condition that has forced him to stop playing. There couldn’t be a better testament to a remarkable musician.