Bach Six Suites for Cello Solo

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LABELS: Evil Penguin Records Classic
ALBUM TITLE: Bach Six Suites for Cello Solo
WORKS: Six Suites for Cello Solo (BWV 1007 – BWV 1012)
PERFORMER: Pieter Wispelwey (cello)


Of my three dozen discs, and innumerable performances I’ve heard live of Bach’s Cello Suites, none is as challenging as this, Wispelwey’s third recording of the works. He adopts the pitch used at Cöthen where Bach wrote the Suites, a semitone below normal ‘Baroque pitch’. The effect, beautifully recorded here, is very striking; Wispelwey describes it as ‘relaxed’, ‘rustic’ and ‘raw’ on the bonus DVD, which includes a fascinating discussion between him and two outstanding Bach scholars, Professors Butt and Dreyfus.

The first four Preludes invite a free, improvisatory ‘stylus phantasticus’ approach, full of musical rhetoric. Wispelwey, while deeply expressive, maintains a sense of metrical continuity (though his suddenly animated ending of No. 2 is a questionable surprise). The Fifth Suite, with one string tuned down, he describes as ‘dark’, its French Overture Prelude weighed down with tragic undertones before its lively fugue. The concerto-style opening of the Sixth, on five-string piccolo cello, is powerfully dramatic.

In the dance movements Wispelwey raises, but doesn’t always answer, important questions. Paired minuets at markedly contrasting tempos (Suite No. 1) have virtually lost touch with their functional origins. Wispelwey frequently stretches notes to create accents. The ‘borrowed- time’ (rubato) of the Fourth’s Courante is rhetorically supple, but the Second’s Allemande rather loses its way. The Sixth’s gigue is seriously disorientating; broken chords extended to exactly twice their real note values become metrically incomprehensible. Elsewhere deep commitment and immaculate technique generate leaping steps (Gigue from Suite No. 3) or heavenly stillness (Sarabande from Suite No. 5).

Love it or hate it, this is a ground-breaking ‘must-buy’ for every cellist and Bach-lover.


George Pratt