Bach: Cello Suites, Nos 1-3

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

ALBUM TITLE: Bach: Cello Suites, Nos 1-3
WORKS: Cello Suites, Nos 1-3, BWV 1007-1009 (arr. theorbo)
PERFORMER: Hopkinson Smith (theorbo)

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No apology is needed for transferring Bach’s Suites for unaccompanied cello to a plucked-string instrument: Bach himself arranged the Fifth Suite for lute. Hopkinson Smith argues convincingly for these three Suites on the lower-pitched theorbo, with its richer, warmer sound and the sonority of the additional bass strings on its extended neck. But he delves deeper, exploring which theorbo to use. The French/Italian instrument has a thinner sound, especially when plucked with fingernails. So he opts for the ‘German’ theorbo, developed by Sylvius Weiss, with a larger, more sonorous body and greater string-length. And, significantly, Weiss was a friend of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and knew his father.

Bach added harmonies freely to his lute version of the Fifth Suite, as does Smith to his arrangements. Occasionally, as he ‘realises’ harmonies only suggested by Bach’s single lines, he hits on options that aren’t the most obvious. In the first Allemande he changes chord ‘positions’ and the Courante loses Bach’s distinctive sustained ‘pedal’ bass-line. The third Sarabande includes a rather Mozartian cadence, and a momentary harmonic invention that is delightful but not clearly implied in the original. Moreover, I wonder if, with every half-bar harmonised, the first Gigue loses some of its bounding urgency.

But for anyone knowing these suites well, this version will prove totally riveting – I haven’t listened more intently for a long time. The recording is intimate without becoming oppressive and, apart from a curiously limited dynamic range, Smith’s playing is profoundly sensitive.

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George Pratt