Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for unaccompanied cello (c.1721)
CD 1
Suite no. 1 in G major (BWV 1007) [19:47]
Suite no. 2 in D minor (BWV 1008) [21:29]
Suite no. 6 in D major (BWV 1012) [29:27]
CD 2
Suite no. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [24:48]
Suite no. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [25:04]
Suite no. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [28:05]
Angela East (baroque cello, England, 1725; 5-stringed cello after Amati, 2000)
rec. François-Bernier Concert Hall, Le Domaine Forget, Saint-Irénée, Canada, May, 2001 (nos.1, 3, 5 and 6) and Troy Savings Bank Concert Hall, New York, February 2004 (nos. 2 and 4). DDD.
RED PRIEST RECORDINGS RP006 [70:35 + 78:07]
Angela East’s recording of the first Cello Suite has already appeared on an earlier issue from Red Priest Recordings: Baroque Cello Illuminations (RP005). I felt that the earlier CD would be of interest mainly to teachers and students of the cello – see review – but I singled out the recording of Bach first Cello Suite at the end of the recital (trs.22-27) as being of general interest.
I wrote that it augured so well for her complete recording that readers might prefer to wait for that to appear separately. The illuminations of the title are certainly present here, in that she makes music which can sometimes sound merely intellectual and academic genuinely affective. She isn’t the only performer to do so, but her performance deserves to be ranked with the best which, for my money, include Pierre Fournier (DG Archiv 449 7112 or 477 6724, both at lower mid-price) and Paul Tortelier (EMI GROC 5628782, mid-price, or Classics for Pleasure 2283582, budget price).
My colleague Jonathan Woolf was less impressed with the performance of that Suite than with the rest of the programme:
This performance is certainly individualistic. She takes the opening very slowly and I find her phrasing in the Courante unusual – the articulation sounds forced and somewhat unnatural. There’s considerable power in the Gigue finale, but overall idiosyncrasy seeps into this performance. (See review).
Since Baroque Cello Illuminations came my way, I have heard the Steven Isserlis performances on Hyperion (CDA67541/2, full price), which Dominy Clements made Recording of the Month in May 2007 – see review – and listened again to Tortelier’s two recordings, and I have to admit that I do now prefer the Isserlis account of Suite No.1. He offers not just the normal version of the Prelude but also, as an appendix, three alternatives, from the Anna Magdalena MS, the Johann Peter Kellner MS and from the collection of Johann Christoph Westphal. His timings for these versions range from 2:21 to 2:29; Fournier on his classic DGG Archiv recording takes 2:50 and Tortelier 2:31 (1961) or 2:25 (1983). Against that consensus East’s 3:59 does seem extremely slow, yet somehow I still think that the tempo just about works – deliberate, without seeming laboured.
In the booklet Ms. East notes that the preludes of all but no.5 meander in a style similar to the earlier ricercar. This may sound like scholarship shaping performance, but I have no objection to that happening if the result is musical and not merely pedantic. In fact, the ricercar, though an old-fashioned form in Bach’s day, was employed in the Musical Offering which he presented to King Friedrich of Prussia as late as 1747. The ricercars in the Offering differ from the earlier form for solo instrument which East has in mind, in that they are in three- and six-parts and analogous to the fugue, but the fact that Bach chose to include them and to give them that name shows that he was at least interested in this archaic form.
Jonathan Woolf’s other reservation concerns the phrasing in the third movement courante. Here East’s tempo is almost identical to those of Isserlis and both Tortelier versions, with Fournier a fraction slower, but it is true that Isserlis maintains a steadier tempo and more even legato phrasing throughout. Comparing the two, I have to admit that I prefer his steadier playing, but I didn’t find East idiosyncratic to the point of inadmissibility and, once again, she offers a reason for her practice in the notes in her desire to distinguish between the various dance movements such as the courante and the sarabande.
Let me take an analogy from acting. When Macbeth imagines that he cannot wash off the blood of the murdered Duncan, the First Folio text inserts a comma between ‘one’ and ‘Red’: “this my Hand will rather / The multitudinous Seas incarnadine, / Making the Greene one, Red.” [II.ii.18-20] This punctuation makes perfect sense: ‘turning the green [sea] red.’ There is, however, another possibility, which involves placing a dramatic pause between ‘Greene’ and ‘one’ and stressing the word ‘Greene’, which makes the meaning ‘turning [the sea] from green to completely red.’ (‘One’ in the sense of ‘overall’.) It is possible to be dogmatic in favouring either of these, vehemently rejecting the alternative as wrong, but, since we don’t have a direct line to Shakespeare, we can’t ask him which is correct. If we could, he might even say that either is possible in the mouth of the right actor. The modern standard Oxford text omits the comma, thereby leaving the meaning open.
On the other hand, television newsreaders and weather forecasters, especially the latter, seem addicted to a spurious version of this kind of dramatic pause and stress, using it to emphasise all the wrong words in a sentence – prepositions and conjunctions in particular. The BBC News channel seems particularly proud of a clip in which the newsreader says “Now here’s some news which has been breaking [short pause] IN [heavy stress] the last half hour”; they play it all the time, blissfully unaware, it seems, that it’s a prime example of where not to place the stress.
Overall, whilst admitting the truth of JW’s reservations, I still find Ms. East’s account of the first Suite illuminating and enjoyable. Her slow tempo for the opening and her phrasing in the courante seem to me more akin to the actor finding alternative meaning in Shakespeare than the sheer bad practice of TV weather forecasters. I admit that the reasons for those variations from the normal practice may be academic, even cerebral. I don’t normally subscribe to the view that Bach is a cerebral composer – it’s no accident that many jazz musicians love his music – but this is, for me, some of Bach’s most cerebral music.
There are some literary texts which need editorial and expository intervention if we are to understand them. Such a work is Langland’s Piers Plowman, a medieval text of considerably greater complexity than his near-contemporary Chaucer and with a very complicated manuscript history which makes it difficult to establish the original text. The standard modern edition, edited by Kane and Donaldson for the Athlone Press (1975) is not a work of great beauty, with individual words and letters encased in various kinds of square brackets or italicised, but these typographical inconveniences demonstrate the way in which the editors determined the nearest approach to the author’s text. Schmidt’s standard undergraduate edition of the same text for Everyman (1975, 1991) also disfigures the text; though he employs fewer brackets, he glosses difficult words at the end of each line or at the foot of the page. Both editions include information about variant manuscript readings at the foot of the page. I accept Angela East’s performance of the courante as the equivalent of these modern texts of Piers Plowman. Neither is as neat or uncluttered as we might wish, but the result is informative.
Bear in mind that Alfred Brendel’s performances of Schubert’s last three piano sonatas, both the original ADD and the DDD remakes, have been criticised for agogic distortion. I’m not, of course, claiming that Angela East’s Bach is of comparable quality to Brendel’s Schubert, which I rate with the greatest interpretations of this great music.
Now comes the real challenge. I normally try to ignore what other reviewers have written until I have fully made up my mind about a recording, but I can’t ignore the fact that two other reviewers, one writing in French, his colleague in English, have castigated the complete set as the worst-ever recording of these works. Helpfully, one of them specifies what he believes to be the source of the problem – academic study resulting in musically senseless playing – and the movements which are the chief object of his criticism: the final gigue of No.3 and the sarabande of No.2.
That sarabande is the prime bête noire for both of them, so I’d better deal with it first. It is slow by comparison with other performers: East takes 5:20 as against Tortelier’s 4:09 (1961) and 4:50 (1983), Fournier’s 4:18 and Isserlis’s 3:55. A sarabande is, of course, by definition, a stately dance; Oscar Wilde even gives it the mournful aspect of nightmarish ghosts in his Ballad of Reading Gaol: “About, about, in ghostly rout / They trod a saraband: / And the damned grotesques made arabesques, / Like the wind upon the sand!” As performed by Steven Isserlis, the movement might well be taken as an illustration of Wilde’s vision. There may be fewer arabesques in East’s performance but her less even phrasing even more effectively conjures the damned grotesques.
It may not be your view of the movement and I’m not entirely convinced by it, but it does seem to me to be a legitimate way of seeing the music. It certainly serves to illustrate the point which she makes in the notes that there should be a contrast ‘between the courantes and the sarabandes in the D minor and C minor suites’: her courante is very little slower than Isserlis’ and Tortelier’s, but her much slower tempo for the sarabande certainly makes for a stark contrast between the two movements. Where her rivals take about twice as long for the sarabande as for the courante, East’s little extra makes a bigger contrast. As Steven Isserlis notes in his commentary on the dances in the Hyperion booklet, Bach expends a great deal of emotional power in the sarabandes and they lie ‘emotionally as well as physically at the very heart of each suite.’ As a matter of interest, I note that Rostropovich is much slower even than East in this sarabande; both clearly take that point about the centrality of this movement seriously.
The other contentious movement is the gigue which concludes the third suite. At 3:47 Angela East is a fraction slower than Paul Tortelier (1961, 3:20 or 1983, 3:21) and noticeably slower than Steven Isserlis (3:06) and Rostropovich (2:51). Isserlis notes in the Hyperion booklet that the gigue is associated with rolling drunkenness; there’s a particularly colourful one in Telemann’s so-called Water Music, leading into an even more rollicking final canarie, in which the drunken boatmen are depicted.
East’s account of the preceding bourrées combines liveliness and reflection in about equal measure. There’s a good deal of accelerando and ritardando, crescendo and diminuendo about her performance of the gigue; even heard in its own context before detailed comparison, the effect does seem a little too pointed, almost manic in places. Isserlis is lighter in the bourrées – more liveliness than reflection here, though the latter aspect of the music is certainly not overlooked. Without a pause he sails into the gigue and here again the dominant tone is sweetness and light, with none of those dramatic gestures which Angela East makes. This time I do have a very clear preference for Isserlis in this movement.
Perhaps Ms East’s dramatic gestures signify an interpretation too subtle for most of us to grasp. The only hint that she gives us in her notes is to refer to the markings which she has consulted in the various manuscript sources, principally in Anna Magdalena’s copy, but I don’t hear the same kind of major deviations from the norm in the appended performances of the variant MS versions of the opening movement of the first suite which conclude the Isserlis recording. As it is, I can only liken her performance here to the photograph in the centre of the booklet in which she is seen carrying her cello down a baroque staircase, apparently not looking where she is going and, thus, in danger of tripping over her long dress.
The Red Priest recording is close but acceptable. There’s some rather pretentious stuff about the imagery of these suites in the booklet; I didn’t find this or the accompanying illustrations very helpful – Angela East sitting on a sea-girt rock on the cover and again, wearing a different dress, inside; sitting in a giant cobweb, etc. I would have greatly preferred some of her more scholarly insights instead. The information about how the recordings took almost nine years to come before the public was interesting but, again, I’d have preferred something more like the kind of exemplary notes which grace the Hyperion set. Isserlis, too, has some personal theories about the moods of the various suites, but he relegates them to an interesting afterthought and heads them ‘definitely not a theory!’
I can’t imagine this new release being as popular as the earlier Red Priest recordings, especially Nightmare in Venice (RRP002) and Pirates of the Baroque (RRP004). It may not be your personal view of the Bach Cello Suites; it isn’t always mine, but I respect what it has to offer and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, apart, perhaps, from that gigue at the end of Suite No.3. Nevertheless, Steven Isserlis on Hyperion (CDA67541/2) makes a much safer recommendation at full price, with Paul Tortelier 1961 (EMI GROC 5628782), Pierre Fournier (DG Archiv 449 7112 or 477 6724) and Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI Recommends 5181582) vying for the mid-price honours or Tortelier 1983 on budget-price CFP (2283582). The Isserlis is also available for download in mp3 or lossless flac for £15.49 from Hyperion.
Brian Wilson
Interesting performances, even where they differ from the norm, but hardly a first choice ... see Full Review