Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Cello Suites
CD 1
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [24:31]
No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 [21:42]
No. 6 in D major BWV 1012 [32:21]
CD 2
No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [27:14]
No. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [25:46]
No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 [20:14]
Tanya Tomkins (cello)
rec. 14-19 May 2010, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California USA.
AVIE AV2212 [79.01 + 73:42]
As I and no doubt others have mused before, there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ recording of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. There will always be something which, in an ideal world, you would go back and change: a passage made more clear, a harmonic emphasis or melodic phrase shifted in emphasis. And then with the sun shining or in a different space, a day or a month afterwards, you would do it differently again. This is living, breathing music which has its own life and soul, and any recording can only ever be a momentary snapshot. This is true of any performance of any music of course, but with the cello suites this quality seems almost to be part of the music’s very essence - teasing performer and audience alike into a sensitively balanced and intimate collaboration of transient beauty and fleeting emotional saturation. As a result I would rather just comment on what I hear rather than play the critic, and, I hope, leave enough space for you to make up your own mind.
Comparing this recording with that of Steven Isserlis on the Hyperion label (see review), one of the first things you notice are the timings. Isserlis has space for a little clutch of fillers where Tanya Tomkins seems determined almost to push her cycle onto a three disc set. Tomkins is indeed slower, and in the way Glenn Gould ‘discovered slowness’ she is prepared to take her time over Bach’s notes. The suites are not presented in numerical order on this disc, and with the Suite No.3 in C major as an opener we instantly alerted to Tomkins’ approach at the lowest note of the opening phrase - a note which here takes exactly three whole seconds. Most players will quite rightly linger a little on the bottom notes in this music as they are so essential to its harmonic rhythm and counterpoint, but this is as extreme as I’ve ever heard. Unlike Gould, Tomkins ranges in fairly wide variations in tempo. Again this Prelude is a prime example, and I suspect many would call this a ‘romantic’ interpretation. We don’t really know how it would have been played in Bach’s time, so I only give the label as a kind of stereotypical but universally understood reference. Apply the same amount of rubato in Rachmaninov and you’d have even the proletariat rioting in the streets. I don’t particularly dislike Bach taken beyond the ‘motor on, keep going’ method of Baroque music making, particularly in solo works. There is however the sense that Tomkins is musing to herself somewhat, teasing improvisatory freedoms from the music which are more personal than Bach.
The meditative, ruminative character of the playing carries on into those sublime Sarabande movements. Tomkins plays with admirable early-music restraint when it comes to rubato, applying touches of it here and there for expressive emphasis. Her tone is by no means thin however, and the 1798 Lockey Hill instrument used for the bulk of the suites has a fine sound throughout its range as well as that all-important rich resonance in the bass. The Suite No.6 in D major is played on a fairly recent 5-string cello modelled on an example from 1699. The effects through the extra string can be quite special, and it is interesting to hear how the spread chords in that tricky Gavotte are solved.
Not all is slowness in these performances of course, and there are nice contrasts to be had in the Courante movements which are more crisp in tempo, though still highly flexible and undulating in character. Even in movements where a dance character might be indicated, expression is the more the language sought here, though we come close in the Prelude of that Suite No.6. What can be a little discomforting are the moments where the underlying sense of pulse is less clear, or just seems to move about. The final Gigue is an example of this, and I would forgive listeners for losing the plot at times in this and other similar movements. Tomkins is also not free from adding her own vocalisations at times, though unlike Glenn Gould she is not singing along - at least, that’s not what it sounds like.
We have to wait until the end of the programme to find the Suite No.1 in G major, but this is a reference work which many people will have in mind when thinking of the entire set. The timeless Prelude is just that with Isserlis: timeless but within a framework. It is allowed to speak for itself; given a platform for expression and a dynamic shape but with the notes allowed to speak evenly and form the harmonies for which they stand. Tomkins hears this movement more as one in which each note has a melodic value, or at least starts out that way. Sooner or later the repetitions become somewhat onerous and the forward momentum picks up a little, but still with plenty of huge commas like potholes in a road. Once allowed to take off the ‘musette’ section climax appears as a result to be something of an island all of its own. This is all well and good - and in many ways legitimate, comparable perhaps to the melodic character of the arpeggio figuration in the first Prelude from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. In substance it is however too much of a ‘fantasia’, and in texture too similar to the following Allemande, which Tomkins plays truly beautifully. Contrast finally arrives in the Courante, with some finely pointed articulation to go along with the extra weight she gives to almost all of this music. It is refined and elegant, but toe-tapping is never part of the fun. The Sarabande is richly emotional, but at times so suspended in time that the musical discourse can be hard to follow. This is another aspect of the playing here which one may question: to what extent is the ‘human scale’, Bach’s vocal character being stretched beyond conceivable breathability. This is a quality stringed instruments have over singers and praise biology and physics for that, but does the mind also feel completely at ease with such elongations in Bach’s cello suites?
My opinion? You know I don’t have one - I’m a Libran, and therefore always on the fence. I’m the bloke who looks at those fashion shows, ‘what not to wear when looking good naked’, and have to wait to be told what styles look well on a person before nodding in sage agreement. I would have nodded in sage agreement if they’d said the same person in the same clothes looked awful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and in this case the ear of the beholder. Tanja Tomkins is a fine cellist, and I admire her excellent technique, sense of personality and original touch in her Bach Suites. My problem is not with the sublime moments of which there are many, nor even with the potential clash of a Baroque instrument with an arguably ‘romantic’ interpretation. My difficulties are with the pace and shape of lines and rhythms, of movements, and therefore the pace and shape of each suite as a whole. When I’ve heard a movement or two, like the Prelude followed by the Allemande of the Suite No.5 in C minor, or come to the end of an entire suite for that matter I know I’ve heard some wonderful music, but it all turns to soup in my mind. It’s all been kneaded and knocked and allowed to rise again, but while smelling delicious the bread which comes out of the oven looks like, and perhaps even is an exquisite bonsai yew tree. It’s two very good and solid things - player and music - which you appreciate and respect instinctively, but which somehow don’t manage to connect at all in terms of narrative.
So, to sum up, Tanya Tomkins’ beautifully produced recording of the Bach Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are A: some of the most profound and movingly expressive performances currently available, or B: infuriatingly eccentric and annoyingly confusing meanderings.
You decide, please.
Dominy Clements
Confusing... beautiful in many ways, but ... 

Masterwork Index: Cello Suites