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Editorial Board
Classical Editor
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DVD: Crotchet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Complete Cello Suites

Paul Tortelier (cello)
rec. Abbaye St. Michel de Cuxa, Festival Pablo Casals of Prades, live performances, July 1990
Produced and directed by Peter Ammann
Audio - Mono; Video 4:3 Colour NTSC
Region Code 0 (all regions); Subtitles - None
VAI 4481 [156:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Moving and powerful, these performances given during July 1990 were made in exceptional circumstances. At the age of seventy-six and suffering from a heart condition Paul Tortelier nevertheless went ahead with recitals in the Abbaye St. Michel de Cuxa during the Festival Pablo Casals of Prades - the fortieth anniversary concerts of the first festival there. He was to die five months later.

Back in 1966 he’d published his own edition of the Suites for Galliard, in which decade he set down his first recorded thoughts on the complete solo cello works. He was to do so again in the 1980s and again in 1990, both times for EMI. Unlike his coeval Rostropovich the Suites held no destabilising fears for him. If one thinks of the French tradition in solo Bach then I suppose one could say that Fournier’s torch passed to Tortelier, only that would be too glib an approximation - and for all my great admiration for Fournier I think Tortelier’s Bach was the more consistent and expressively integrated.

There are some visual matters to discuss. There are several camera angle shots. One was ‘front left and under’ if you follow, so we look up at the cello. Another was close up from the right and yet another rather from the right side, so we can glimpse the audience beyond. These are unusual enough angles to note. They don’t intrude. The Abbey brickwork adds a gauntly beautiful backdrop to the performances. We can see music stands pressed up against a far wall, awaiting future performances. Tortelier himself sits enthroned, as it were, in all this - we see his face in riveting detail, the folds of his jacket, the burnish of the cello in the streaming light, the cool, white stone walls as they hold the secrets of the ages, and of Bach.

Each suite is a self contained unit so the credits roll at the end of each work. This might perhaps have been remedied for DVD but I don’t feel strongly about it and some might prefer the finality it affords, the sense of punctuation after so great a work has been played in so hallowed a place. The playing is not without flaw but these specks (the Menuet of the D minor, for example) are so insignificant as not to matter. The great spirit that communes with Bach is revealed in humility but also with a sense of projected self. The playing is deeply moving - he was one of the great Bach players of his generation irrespective of instrument, of affiliation or whatever - and this is revealed in every bow stroke and in the palpable intensity of his playing. He marries dancing lightness with brooding depth of utterance; at no time does one wish that the spirit of the dance might be stronger, so fluidly and excitingly does it course throughout the set. His courantes are an especial delight but this is to take one example from among so many.

Should you want a visual representation of Tortelier, or indeed of the Suites, this DVD is essential.

Jonathan Woolf 

Masterwork Index: all reviews of the Bach Cello Suites on Musicweb


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