Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for unaccompanied cello
Suite no. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [19:07]
Suite no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [20.14]
Suite no. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [32:22]
Suite no. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [23:23]
Suite no. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 [26:56]
Suite no. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [32:22]
Hekun Wu (cello)
rec. June, 2008, Hudson Hall, Rogers Music Centre, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon.
MSR CLASSICS MS 1385 [71:44 + 76:03]

Hekun Wu’s recording of the Six Suites for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach joins a crowded field over fifty strong. Unfortunately it is not competitive in any way with recent versions on either period or modern cello.

The foundation of the modern cello repertoire, the Suites all follow a six movement pattern. The Prelude is the longest and most improvisatory movement; this is followed by contrasting dance movements, an Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande, finishing with a Gigue. In between the Sarabande and Gigue is a pair of “modern” dance movements; Suites nos. 1 and 2 feature Minuets, nos. 3 and 4 Bourrées, and nos. 5 and 6 Gavottes. Despite this similarity of layout, the suites are all very different from each other in mood. Numbers 2 and 5, the minor key suites, have a richly tragic character; the Sarabande of Suite no. 5 in particular has a feeling of immense sadness.

Any performer of the Bach Cello Suites has above all to fend off any feeling of monotony - an ever-present danger with works for a single instrument. Bach goes to some lengths to make the cello sound momentarily like more than one instrument; chords and “voice leading”, where one voice imitates the other in a higher or lower register, are the major devices he employs. It is also vital to remember that most of the movements in the Suites are dance movements. This is not to say that they were meant to be danced to; I remember a television program with Yo-Yo Ma where this was attempted unsuccessfully. But the movements have to feel like dance music.

Unfortunately this recording is singularly lacking in this feeling. Hekun Wu plays a modern Italian instrument (Venice, 1929) and uses a modern bow. In his liner-notes he pays tribute to the insights gained by performers using period instruments and Baroque performance practice. The performances, however, have an unrelieved heftiness that harks back to the Romantic readings of Rostropovich or Casals. I can find no trace of the liveliness, or the tonal and emotional variety, of period instrument performances like that by Anner Bylsma. Repeats are invariably taken, but no attempt is made to vary the second time sections, for example by introducing ornamentation, or varying the dynamics. I enjoyed his way with the chords, which he plays with a delightfully light bow. But this was a rare felicity. This music can sound so much more interesting than it does here.

Guy Aron

This recording of the Bach Cello Suites is lacking in tonal and rhythmic variety.

Masterwork Index: Cello Suites