Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for Solo Cello
No. 1 in G minor BWV1007 [20:28]
No. 2 in D minor BWV1008 [22:04]
No. 3 in C major BWV1009 [24:18]
No. 4 in E flat major BWV1010 [27:07]
No. 5 in C minor BWV1011 [27:09]
No. 6 in D major BWV1012 [33:38]
Sonatas for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord
No. 1 in G major BWV1027 [12:48]
No. 2 in D major BWV1028 [13:35]
No. 3 in G minor BWV1029 [13:51]
Karine Georgian (cello); Gary Cooper (harpsichord)
rec. St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, May 2007 (Suites) and January 2008 (Sonatas)
SOMM SOMMCD 090-2 [3 CDs: 76:41 + 79:14 + 40:45]

It is hard now to imagine a time when only a single recorded version of the unaccompanied Suites was available. Whilst I still return to those Casals recordings with immense pleasure it is always good to be able to welcome the many new versions, each shedding new light on these fascinating works. I have no idea how many are currently available or whether it has yet reached treble figures, but I do remember that as recently as 1999 a recording by Susan Sheppard (no relation) was advertised as being the first by a woman. Intriguing as that version was I remain unclear whether its virtues were in any way due to the performer’s gender. Certainly it is hard to see that its more rhetorical approach had much in common with the present version so as to suggest that there is a specifically female way of playing the Suites. On the contrary, this version shows, yet again, the extraordinary way in which they offer the player possibilities to demonstrate the range of his or her musical imagination and sensitivity. I have enormously enjoyed performances from many distinguished players of very widely differing approaches, and am very happy that Karine Georgian is now one of that number.

At the risk of making these recordings sound dull, I should begin by saying that there is no unique selling point to these discs, no oddity of performance that the reviewer can seize upon. On the contrary, what struck me throughout was the player’s wise choice as each hurdle of performance decisions was reached. Rhythms are allowed to be flexible, but not to the extent of losing touch with the essential flow of each movement. Dynamics are kept within a relatively tight rein. Repeats are taken when asked for, and although Ms Georgian clearly has a wide palette of articulation available, she uses it for essentially musical rather than showy purposes. I hesitate to use the word ‘sensible’ as that might suggest some dullness or lack of imagination in these performances, but they are sensible in presenting the essential line and character of each Suite without fuss but with great finesse. It helps that Ms Georgian’s tone is of considerable beauty and her intonation beyond reproach, and that the recording sounds close but manages to avoid picking up incidental sounds.

The Sonatas have also been the subject of many recordings in recent years, mainly using the viola da gamba rather than the cello. As this was the instrument for which they were written this is unsurprising, but it is a pleasure to hear them once again on an instrument with a greater tonal range. The problem in these works is usually one of balance and it has not entirely been solved here. Effectively they are trio sonatas, with two upper lines and a bass line - the G major Sonata does indeed exist also in a version for two flutes and continuo. If you want to be able to hear a real equality of the upper lines you have to go to that version. There is an inherent difficulty in balancing a line played on a sustaining instrument such as the cello with one played on the harpsichord. At times here the former does tend to obscure the latter. Nonetheless the balance overall is better than on many rival versions, helped by Ms Georgian’s great care over articulation and avoidance of excessive vibrato on long held notes. I thoroughly enjoyed all three works and was left wanting more. There is indeed room for more on the disc but given that the set can be obtained at a bargain price it is perhaps churlish to complain.

The enormous number of competing versions means that no one recording of either set of works could sensibly be said to be an automatic first choice. This set does nonetheless have formidable virtues. These may not be the most exciting versions of the Suites in particular, but I am not sure that excitement is an important virtue in these pieces. Much more important is sensitivity to their style and musical line, and this is something that these recordings most certainly do have. If you want a version that is wise, companionable and mature in its response to the music this is a set well worth investigating.

John Sheppard