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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Suites for Solo Cello (1720)
No. 1 in G BWV1007 [15:33]
No. 2 in D minor BWV1008 [19:21]
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [19:44]
No. 4 in E flat Major, BWV 1010 [21:06]
No. 5 in C minor BWV1011 [21:42]
No. 6 in D major BWV 1012 [26:58]
Pablo Casals (cello)
rec. 25 November 1936 (nos.2, 3); 2 June (no.1) and 3 June (no.6) 1938; 13-16 June (nos.4, 5) 1939, Abbey Road (nos.2, 3) and Paris (nos.1, 4, 5, 6) Mono. ADD
Digitally remastered at Abbey Road Studios by Simon Gibson.
EMI CLASSICS MASTERS 9659212 [56:46 + 72.34]

Experience Classicsonline


There can be few classical music lovers who are not familiar with the true fairy-story in which, in 1890, the thirteen-year-old Pablo Casals, newly enamoured of the cello and foraging with his father in the back-street music-shops of Barcelona, happened across the Grützmacher’s edition of Bach's lost "Cello Suites" on a dusty shelf. Prodigiously talented, Casals was already studying by day in the Escola Municipal de Música and moonlighting in a café trio; the re-discovery of Bach’s neglected suites changed both his life and the course of twentieth century music for good.
 
He practised them assiduously for another thirteen years before finally feeling able to perform them in public. To do so, he had to evolve new techniques and arrive at an understanding of this remarkable music. He came to espouse a philosophy of performance based upon the principle that no matter how abstracted, stylised and removed this music had become, it was still essentially the music of dance and as such required the performer to invest it with a Terpsichorean vigour, vitality, elegance and grace. It was another quarter of a century before he could be persuaded by EMI to record them.
 
Casals released these suites from the fate of many a Bach masterpiece over two hundred years, of being considered a dry, technical exercise of no particular value beyond its use as practice fodder to engender facility and flexibility. Such was Casals’ emotional investment in this music that he found performing and recording them physically exhausting - though in later years he would willingly perform from them for grateful visitors such as Rostropovich. The recordings here were made two at a time, first at Abbey Road, then in Paris between 1936 and 1939; it must surely have been an additional emotional spur to Casals, fierce Republican and champion of liberty, that they coincided with the ghastly events of the Spanish Civil War.
 
We do not know exactly when Bach composed these suites but they were probably completed at Cöthen by about 1720. We are not sure for whom they were written, but he was evidently a cellist of surpassing skill; possibly court musicians Abel or Linigke, or even Prince Leopold himself. The original manuscript is lost but we have two unreliable copies made in Bach’s lifetime, one made in 1730 by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. We therefore have no guidance from the composer regarding performance practice and there are further mysteries and peculiarities, such as the fact that the fifth suite requires scordatura - the tuning down of the A string to G, to make some chords easier to play - and the sixth seems to have been written for a five-string cello or viola da gamba, with an E string added above the A to accommodate the very high passages. Many cellists find other approaches in no. 5, avoiding the intonation problems associated with retuning, and some play the sixth on a different instrument; others make adjustments to play it on the normal four-string cello. Most simply concoct their own performing edition; it seems to work.
 
In the end, these are “just” unaccompanied dance suites. The richness of the result is partly the result of Bach’s ability to suggest a multiplicity of lines and voices which continue to sing in the “mind’s ear” of the performer and listener. Registers and tempi and dynamics alternate in bewitching fashion and there are is always more - heard and unheard - going on than at first appears.
 
Listening to these miraculously preserved and restored recordings by Casals, I am immediately struck by the sheer life-enhancing energy and attack of his bowing. No pusillanimous playing safe here; the performances leap out of the speakers as if they were recorded last month, not over seventy years ago. These are the First Folio, the Urtext, the paradigm of performances, and it would be a brave man who would dare to disparage them.
 
I t is now fashionable to remark that Casals’ Romantic, open-hearted performance style is both outmoded stylistically and superseded technically. I think the former would have been scoffed at by acknowledged masters of the instrument such as Rostropovich and the latter considered supremely irrelevant by the legion admirers of these discs. The spirit of the man and the conviction of the music-making quite outweigh any such petty considerations. In any case, I am neither technically knowledgeable enough to pass judgement nor concerned that a few exuberant inaccuracies might in any way compromise the musical integrity of Casals’ conception.
 
Looming over every great cellist is the conviction that he must eventually risk his reputation and record this music. Casals himself, awed by the challenges it poses, famously procrastinated before making this recording. His version is the one by which all others are now measured. Any cellist who commits his interpretation to posterity is acutely aware of his spirit hovering near, thus Rostropovich, too, hesitated, unsure whether he was ready to climb the mountain. Before Casals, the cello suites were by and large considered to be unplayable and uncongenial as music, yet they now appear almost foolproof in the hands of great artists like Gendron, Maisky, Ma, Rosen and those I name below. I am unqualified to pronounce on the relative merits of all the versions available. I own five sets, but none of them would be considered “authentic” in the manner of versions by Anner Bylsma or Jaap ter Linden; my references in comparison with Casals are the celebrated versions by Fournier, Starker (his first on Mercury), Rostropovich and Isserlis, all of which are more traditional in stamp. I find them all to be supremely satisfying and sui generis; the mark of Bach’s genius is that this music will happily tolerate a surprisingly wide range of tempi, phrasal choice, dynamic shadings - and even recording acoustics. This not very helpful to a reader seeking a “first choice recording recommendation”, but it is impossible to suggest one; there are too many variables. My only advice is to find one you like. It’s quite difficult to pick a lemon.
 
A survey of the duration of my five recordings reveals an astonishing diversity, yet it seems that the Cello Suites will withstand almost any musical approach. Rostropovich - intense, but not leisurely - takes well over half an hour longer than Janos Starker (the fleetest of all at 112 minutes) and fifteen minutes longer than most. Casals’ timing lies conveniently in the middle at two hours and ten minutes, as if to illustrate the hypothesis that interpreters since have felt obliged to make a stand in some manner against his approach by taking either faster or slower tempi. One example would suffice to illustrate my point; look at the variation in timings for the Allemande in suite no. 6:
 
Fournier: 5:43
Rostropovich: 10:31
Starker: 4:33
Isserlis: 7:37
Casals: 7:31
 
Only Isserlis “agrees” with Casals - yet I will happily listen to any of them and am inclined to dismiss a great deal of “odious comparison” as peevish or precious; these are great artists offering deeply considered interpretations and tempo is a crude measurement of quality. The Mercury notes suggest that Starker claimed that subsequent cellists have advanced beyond their idol in terms of interpretation and technique; if so, that strikes me as a rash assertion. Starker’s is certainly a compelling interpretation and does not sound rushed by virtue of his technical brilliance and the laser-like intensity of his line. Turning to Rostropovich after listening to Starker, however, is like eating zabaglione straight after a lemon sorbet. Rostropovich is far more in the Casals mode: both are on the majestic, stately side, especially in the Sarabandes, which are “Romantic” and deeply felt, whereas Starker is cooler and more forensic.
 
The similarities between Casals and Rostropovich persist in their metaphysical perception of the suites, as dictated by the character of each Prelude as they see it. They make an interesting comparison:

  Suite
Casals
Rostropovich
1
Optimism
Lightness
2
Tragedy
Sorrow and Intensity
3
Heroism
Brilliance
4
Grandeur
Majesty and Opacity
5
Tempestuousness
Darkness
6
Bucolic idyll
Sunlight
 
Not much discrepancy here and you can hear the consonance of their ideas in their playing. There is as singing quality to Casals’ approach and of course the joy in music-making that we associate with him either as a soloist or a conductor. Starker, by contrast, is sharper and more alive in his delivery to the irony of the perkier movements. Casals adopts a free, almost improvisatory mode in his bowing, tempi, dynamics, tone and phrasing, frequently employing rubato. I have not heard Yo-yo Ma, but some are alienated by his comparative restraint and technical precision; similarly, Isserlis is fleet and lean of tone, inclining towards gentility and rather too closely recorded, with all the clicks, slides and grunts which some find atmospheric and others merely irritating. (Oddly, his Sarabandes really are too slow at times.) I favour a more overtly emotive approach and thus respond to the Casals- Rostropovich expansiveness, but some might find this indulgent and inappropriate to the Baroque, where the emphasis is upon the linear and cerebral.
 
So will Casals do? This EMI remastering is very satisfactory and is by all accounts superior to either the Naxos or the Opera d’Oro versions. The first EMI attempt attracted a lot of negative reviews complaining that they had air-brushed out too many frequencies and killed the immediacy. Whatever noise-reduction system is used, the essential problem is to find a compromise between what to leave in and what to take out. Some listeners find the edition by Opus Kura (a Japanese historical label founded in 2000) to offer a warmer, more realistic ambient sound but their engineering has retained a lot more hiss and the set is considerably more expensive than this bargain EMI twofer. I find it remarkable how quickly one learns to listen through the patina of swish and engage with the interpretation; this EMI has historical and aesthetic claims to be on the shelves of any moderately serious collector but a first time buyer will probably want the superior sound quality found in one of the many recommendable modern versions.  

Just as Caruso’s voice emerged more cleanly than any other singer from the acoustic recording process, Casals’ cello survives the recording technology of his day better than any other solo instrument; it really is not much of an issue to anyone with willing ears. He did not produce an especially voluptuous tone, but the steel in it suits his more strenuous temperament and the sense of striving after music unheard that his engagement with Bach suggests. The groanings of his instrument in its lowest reaches are like birth-pangs; a wondrous, complex creature is born. The febrile brilliance of Starker, the austere classicism of Fournier and the volatile idiosyncrasy of Rostropovich are all supremely viable and rewarding, but the humanity of Casals’ recording reinforces its claim as an essential supplement - if you will excuse the oxymoron - to a modern recording.
 
Ralph Moore 

Review Index: Cello Suites

 


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