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
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
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.