Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello

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WORKS: Six Suites for Solo Cello
PERFORMER: Julius Berger (cello)
Time was when recording these six suites seemed a rite of passage from mere greatness to immortality, justified by the strength of the performer’s personality. The advent of period instruments brought greater humility in the search for Bach’s intentions. Ma’s sound recording, from the video project ‘Inspired by Bach’, takes us into a third realm, a world of fantasy. His scenarios change for each suite: ‘A Musical Garden’ with Piranesi’s 18th-century etchings of imaginary dungeons; ‘Six Gestures’ from ice-dancers Torvill and Dean…


Though the Preludes are abstract fantasies, Bach’s dances, albeit now concert pieces, do have a functional resonance with Parisian dancing in German courtly circles – and Suite No. 3 is outstanding. Ma’s well-nigh impeccable technique allows his bow to dance through the most taxing movements – the Gavottes of Suite No. 6, originally for a five-string cello, are a triumph as he touches fistfuls of chords with exquisite delicacy. The rhythms of the fifth Prelude could perhaps reflect more overtly that itactually a French Ouverture (and here, there are some horrid distortions in the otherwise alluring recorded sound).


Berger, following ‘period’ practice, minimises vibrato, reflects the lighter articulation of a Baroque bow, the intimacy of the cello held, without a spike, between the knees. Tempi, supposedly derived from 18th-century advice, are strangely wayward – minuets out of touch with dance, courantes so fast they become scrambled. But the husky, gut-string sound, poles apart from Ma’s sonority, is no less convincing in this amazingly responsive music.