Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012
Richard Tunnicliffe (cello)
rec. 12-16 October, 2010; 14-16 February 2011; 21 November 2011, St. George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK. SACD DDD
LINN CKD396 [62:54 + 75:03]

The current catalogue has literally hundreds of CDs containing all or some of Bach's iconic Suites for solo cello. Even casual lovers of 'early' music, and certainly of the unique profundity, beauty and humanity of Bach, may well have their favourites. Among these are likely to be Fournier on DG (449711), the first Casals on EMI (Great Recordings of the Century 62617), Rostropovich, also on EMI (99156) and Wispelwey on Channel Classics (12298). 
Now here's a splendid performance from Richard Tunnicliffe that is certainly worthy of very close scrutiny indeed. Robust, rounded, resonant, rich and quietly perceptive, it captivates from the first bars - although one might blench at the proto-Romantic crescendo at the end of the first Suite's Prelude [CD.1 tr.1]; and at a slight tendency to 'walk', almost, during such slow movements as the minuet of the second Suite [CD.1 tr.11]. Tunnicliffe has deliberation and drive at the same time. These passages don't become pedestrian or too formulaic or merely 'exemplary'. Especially when - as is usually the case in Bach's sequence - the movement that follows is full of life, is faster and can hardly be played without animation. To these Tunnicliffe brings lift and verve, though without excessive agitation or excitement.
Expression and lyricism are also to the fore in Tunnicliffe's approach. Listen to the three opening slow movements of the E-flat Major (BWV 1010) [CD.2 tr.s 1-3]. The cello does not 'sing' as it did in Casals' days, nor 'perform' as for Kuijken (on Accent 24196); still less overtly project itself as it did for Tortelier (EMI Classics 575368). It is there almost as a companion on a long walk, someone who has trodden the route before, someone knowing, reliable, with greater experience and barely concealed confidence (towards the end of the same Suite's second bourrée [CD.2 tr.5]). Yet it's not a gleeful, irresponsible, lightheaded dancing confidence. It's a measured, dignified - almost middle aged (!) - confidence.
Dance is very much at front and centre of the Cello Suites - and of Tunnicliffe's playing. Though in Tunnicliffe's hands they're the dances perceived not as a Latin blur or as French mischief but as from the perspective of a German dancing tutor; and a worldly German dancing tutor, at that. Nothing is missing. There's a stately distance from actual physical movement, which many will find strangely appealing. The slight syncopation we hear in the C minor's (BWV 1011) second gavotte [CD.2 tr.11] is a good example: infused with sap and strength - yet not bursting, not whirling.
On the other hand, Tunnicliffe's is not a cerebral interpretation of the Bach cello Suites as is, say, that of Rostropovich; it has a blend of wryness and authority that suggest the combination that would have resulted from blending the recorded accounts of the meditative Isserlis (Hyperion 30001) and the amorous Maisky (Deutsche Grammophon 445373).
Tunnicliffe is very much at home, comfortable and at ease with this monumental solo challenge, then. Interestingly, 'challenge' is almost the last word he would apply to his relationship with it. In the same way as Wispelwey - but not some of the (last) century's earlier virtuosos, who saw the Suites as a tour de force - Tunnicliffe seems to see the music as just … existing. It is as if it had existed for ever. It's our privilege as those who come afterwards to reproduce or listen to it. This not as an act of veneration or homage; more in the spirit of participating in the currents of ethereal and eternal energy which so much of this area of Bach's music represents.
One of the other strengths of this account is the extent to which Tunnicliffe emphasises the distinct personalities, moods and individual worlds created - less often inhabited - by each Suite's movements. Tunnicliffe is experienced enough for this sense of colour and personality to strengthen, rather than potentially fragment, the overall structure and architecture of the six Suites, which are played in BWV order across the two CDs: G Major, D minor, C Major then E-flat Major, C minor and D Major. One way in which this unity is achieved and maintained is the result of Tunnicliffe's superb delivery - especially his facility with every register and technique of his instruments. In this case these are a four-string attributed to Leonhard Maussiell (c. 1720 Nuremberg) and five-string piccolo by Pierre Malahar (1726, Bordeaux); the pitch is A = 415. These are exactly contemporary with the likely dates of composition - while Bach was employed at Cöthen, probably the most musically satisfying and happy period of his life.
Tunnicliffe's playing explores the gamut of emotions from reserved gloominess to pure joy. He is always in complete control and with an element of controlled reserve. This means a balance that's both compelling and unsurprising - as in the opening of the final Suite [CD.2 tr.13]. He obviously has thought long and hard about this music over his career. Like the other soloists with credible claims to our attention as recorded performers - it's never the musician before the music. No one Suite or movement alone exemplifies this informed humility though the ease yet unambiguous articulation of the C Major's sarabande [CD.1 tr.16] illustrates the point. By the time you've been immersed in the music, it's the greatness of the latter that you're left with - not the performance. That is as it should be.
The acoustic is resonant yet neither overbearing nor cloying - the unassuming suburban church of St George's on the outskirts of Cambridge. The recordings took place on three occasions over the winter of 2010/2011 and somehow hint at the bleakness of such a place on the edge of the fens. This music is never warm or 'soupy' for Tunnicliffe, who has an excellent and informative short essay in the CDs' accompanying booklet. Most revealing are his ideas on the status of the cello in the early C18th and the need for and style of ornamentation. Tunnicliffe obviously has a thoroughly clear sense of how this affects his approach. That - and his unassuming yet undeniable insight into this great music - make this a recording to get to know and enjoy alongside the established milestone CDs.  

Mark Sealey

Masterwork Index: Cello suites

Unassuming yet outstandingly competent - utterly compelling - played with reserve, not detachment.