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Cello Suites
Heinrich Schiff
EMI Double Fforte CZS 5741792 [Total: 124:59 * Disc One: 55:12 * Disc Two: 69:47]

This Double Fforte EMI Classics reissue presents the six Bach solo cello suites on 2 CDs and sells at mid-price. The music was recorded in 1984 by the cellist Heinrich Schiff, about whom the booklet tells us nothing. Indeed, the booklet is fronted with an irrelevant painting by an artist who was born 53 years after Bach died, while the notes draw heavily on Wilfrid Meller's book Bach and the Dance of God, without really giving us any particular reason as to why. A newcomer to this music would not learn that these suites are considered among the most profound of all classical works, though he or she would gather something about the court of Prince Leopold, including the fact that the prince once had Bach imprisoned in order to prevent him leaving the royal service. And musicians think they have it tough today.

Still, the important thing here is the music. The recording is very good, the instrument well focused in the warm acoustic of the Evangelical Church of Seon, the ambience not being allowed to swamp detail with surplus reverberation. As for the performances: this is, however theoretically, dance music and Schiff, a musician whose ability is not in doubt, approaches the scores with considerable technical skill, though in places at such brisk tempos that the sense of rhythm is subsumed under the forward momentum. Schiff takes fractionally under 125 minutes to perform the 6 pieces, whilst many other musicians take 130 or even 140 minutes - for instance the 1998 Channel Classics account by Pieter Wispelwey (Channel Classics CCS12298). However, what Schiff loses in grace he regains in drama, giving a somewhat stern though forceful account. This is considered musicianship and must be respected as the thoughts of a major solo performer one of Bach's greatest works.

Even so, I doubt very much that this is ever going to be regarded as one of the great versions of this music, and there are far too many rivals equally worthy of attention. On the other hand, at 2-1 price this set does offer good value, and may serve as a worthwhile introduction to the Suites for anyone wary of buying a full-price double of someone playing a cello for over two hours. Personally I'd go for Rostropovitch, also on EMI (CDS5553632), but at full price. Nevertheless, recommended as a good budget choice.

Gary S. Dalkin

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