Bach's cello suites are
arguably the greatest works ever written for solo cello. Recorded
by any cellist worth his salt, these works contain some of the
most poignant and emotional music Bach ever wrote. Susan Sheppard
performs these works on two baroque cellos, a 4-string cello
for the first five suites and a 5-string instrument for the
sixth suite. The instrument used in the first five suites has
a very warm, attractive sound, even though there is a bit too
Sheppard plays these suites
in a somewhat rough manner. She sounds as though she is playing
more for personal enjoyment than for performance. At times,
she strokes the cello, coaxing sounds out of it, but at other
moments, such as the end of the G major courante, she sounds
as though she is at odds with her instrument, forcing it to
comply with her demands, to make the sound she wants.
This is in no way a criticism
of her playing - quite the contrary. At times, she gives this
music an energy and vitality that is not heard often enough.
With fluidity in the sinuous runs of some of the allemandes
and sarabandes, she makes the faster dance movements dance.
The minuets in the G major suite have energy, rhythm and do
not sound staid and dry, as they do under the bows of many cellists.
Sample 1: disc 1, track
That said, rhythmically,
there are some areas where the sound is at odds with the music.
There is a certain amount of hesitation in the accented notes
at the beginning of the first movement of the G major suite
and this confuses the rhythm a bit. This is all the more disconcerting
because it is the first movement of the set.
Sample 2: disc 1, track
The allemande of the E flat
major suite also has rhythm problems. This deceptively simple
movement - at least simple on the surface - sounds heavy and
pedestrian with the rhythm just not working at all. Sheppard
sounds out of sympathy with this movement, as if it is too simple
Sample 3: disc 2, track
While Susan Sheppard plays
some of these movements with rare vitality and energy, others
sound as if she had just learnt them. This is unfortunate: if
all of them were as good as the best on this set, it would be
one of the finest recordings available. Most of the movements
are performed very well, but the few that aren’t detract too
much from the overall atmosphere. Alas, the inconsistency of
the set is disappointing. As it is these discs give an idea
of what might have been.