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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Suites for Solo Cello (1717-1723) [142:07]
CD 1 [63.19]
Suite No. 1 [19.43]; Suite No. 2 [20.41]; Suite No. 3 [22.40]
CD 2 [78.48]
Suite No. 4 [23.34]; Suite No. 5 [23.05]; Suite No. 6 [31.32]
David Kenedy (cello)
rec. Manoukian Music Centre, Westminster Great School, London, 13-14 May, 25-26 August, 21-22 December 2005
SIGNUM SIGCD 091 [63:19 + 78:48]

 


You might consider it unfortunate that the Irish-born cellist David Kenedy’s Bach Suites should be issued at the same time as a much trumpeted Hyperion version by Steven Isserlis. However I had already decided not to make this a comparative review, largely because on looking through the catalogue I found countless alternative versions available and secondly because, I have come to this music fresh, not having heard the suites for several years and without a single version of them to my name. Judge for yourself if this is good or not but it is certainly possible to make comments on a performance and approach without the heavy baggage of knowledge. Who knows - you too may be in a similar position.

First the nicely illustrated programme notes by David Kenedy himself. They are very personal, and I like that. They take us back to his first encounter with this music aged 5, when he heard the LPs of the great Pablo Casals. In fact that is exactly where I started although I was 15 not 5. He tells us how the music affected him emotionally at a young age and how, at the age of 50 only now does he feel able and willing to commit his interpretations to disc. Often when music is so precious to us we can take such a view. Its God-like quality can have an adverse effect on our efforts. Perhaps Kenedy would fall into this trap. Steven Isserlis is also coming to the music later in life: he will be 50 next year.

In his recent recording Isserlis equated the suites to a scenario of the life of Christ. I quote The Gramophone article (July 2007): the suites begin with the “joyful mystery” then “the nativity, culminating in the resurrection of the sixth suite with its radiant ending”. David Kenedy also sees a underlying spirituality but is less specific. I will quote straight from his more objective booklet notes: “the Suites can be seen as Bach’s musical offering to his creator of a mirror of all that he sees around him ….. the six days of creation combine to build a single structure incorporating the physical, mental and spiritual realms in a vast and extraordinary work.” The fact remains however, that no-one really knows why Bach wrote these suites. He was at that time concert master to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen so he must surely have had an especially fine and reliable performer in mind.

Many composers fight shy of writing for a single instrument or voice. Consequently it used to be the case when I was a student that young composers were encouraged to write for unaccompanied instruments, concentrating on a single line, which can only be coloured, in the case of a string instrument, by some double-stopping. It is a hard discipline and many, very experienced composers still find it arduously challenging. Bach may have taken the view that it was a discipline for him too. It’s interesting that you can hear the composer, then in his early thirties, growing in maturity as the six suites develop.

Kenedy allows the music to grow in confidence so that by the end we are in the full sunlight. His above comments fit neatly with Kenedy’s intimate and thoughtful approach. With possible exception of the flamboyant Sixth Suite, I felt that I was in some private, spacious drawing room with a few friends. There the player muses, without too much sense of spectacle, on the music, mulling over its subtleties. These are then snapshots of how the performer feels about the works at the moment of recording and in that particular space.

The suites each fall into six sections: a Prelude, an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande, then either a pair of Minuets or Bourrées or Gavottes and a Gigue brings proceedings to an end.

Kenedy’s view and approach to these six masterworks can also be discovered in his notes when he comes to discuss the suites in turn. The first, he says is generally the simplest, and it certainly is the shortest; note for example the brief lyrical Prelude. The second he describes as ‘most intimate and fragile’ and here incidentally the beautiful and elegantly toned 1758 cello by Carlo Landolfi comes into its own. The third suite is described as “grand, confident and self-possessed”. The Fourth suite is on a larger scale, which Kenedy says wanders “to distant, gloomy tonalities, a foretaste of the threat of doom”. The fifth suite is the darkest and most uncompromising but the sixth brings the cycle to a full “affirmation of all aspects of life, human and divine”.

I would describe this recording as a good place to start with the Bach Suites. No one would say that David Kenedy had made it into the pantheon of the world’s great cellists – yet. That said, these are sincere performances, bold and clean-cut but not as passionate as others. Having heard Isserlis’s superb performance of the Sixth Suite yesterday, still lying fresh in my ears, I can vouch for that. There is not enough drama and light and shade but there is an emphasis on line and tone. This is honest and affectionate playing and is worth adding to your Bach collection but not I would suggest to stand on its own as your only interpretation.

Gary Higginson 

 


 


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