JS Bach

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Delphian
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Cello Suites
PERFORMER: Philip Higham (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: DCD 34150

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Young Scottish cellist Philip Higham made an audacious recording debut with the solo Britten suites, a risk that paid off in performances of remarkable maturity and finesse. To follow that with the six solo Bach suites is yet more daring.

Higham explains in the sleeve note that he wanted to record them now before age burdens him with the expectation of a ‘definitive’ reading. So here’s a snapshot of a highly gifted musician in the midst of an exploratory process. The first three suites come off best: Bourrées, Menuets and Gigues are nimble, articulate and glinting with judicious ornament, tempos are unselfconsciously vivacious, rarely fast. He’s gone back to Anna Magdalena’s copy, finding a variant of the opening material in the D major Prelude which adds a piquant suspension to the pattern. Higham has also absorbed its asymmetric implied bowings, bringing a fascinating, fluid tension to the G major Prelude, in particular. Limpid regularity plunges into improvisatory caprice after its first cadence, a musically defensible conception that doesn’t quite come off. The D minor Prelude, by contrast, is wonderfully coherent in its sombre beauty. There are times when impatience seems to push the pulse off-kilter, here and in the C major and C minor Preludes.

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Higham has tuned down his Testore cello to A=435Hz which gives a slightly ‘baggy’ feel to the fourth Prelude, the pay-off being bass notes of inky depth, especially in the C minor suite, the richly textured timbre seeping out into this church acoustic. However, one longs for a cleaner voicing in its fugue, which begins to feel congested. Modern set-up and bow are traded in for a new, rather glaring five-string cello with Baroque bow for the D major suite: this is a reading of supple radiance and sustained energy, but lacks the dazzling range of his compatriot David Watkin’s recent Resonus recording, whose dances fly clean off the page. Helen Wallace