Of French cellists of the recent past, three tended to dominate
the catalogue when it came to the Bach suites: Tortelier, Fournier
and Gendron. Tortelier was perhaps the most charismatic, Gendron
the most perfectly in tune and Fournier the most aristocratic.
There was another elite French romanticist who committed his
performance to disc and that was the ex-boxer André Navarra.
In 1977 Georges Kisselhoff, who died recently, recorded Navarra
in studio traversals of all the suites. This was the set that
is probably most familiar now on Calliope 9641.2. I’m
not sure as to the whys and wherefores of its appearance here
on the Phaia label, but I hope that as many people as possible
have the opportunity to listen to these noble, but freely-moving,
dancing, intense, probing performances, ones that establish
him, as if any such establishment were needed, as fully deserving
of his place in that pantheon of great French cellists.
Commitment and love: one senses both in every bar. The tone
is freighted with rich colours but lightens when need be. Bowing
remains flexible. The movements are played with directness,
but never with any sense of coolness or doctrinaire detachment,
as one so often finds. Equally they never get bogged down in
slow movements and whilst, say, the Sarabande of the
third suite is imbued with rich vibrato, and whilst it’s
also deeply expressive, it’s not out of scale with the
other movements, as sometimes can be the case in performances
of musicians of Navarra’s vintage.
Navarra clearly has no stylistic agenda. Instead his playing
evinces grace, momentum and communicative intensity and, for
all his accumulated wisdom in the suites, there is also from
time to time a real sense, imagined or not, of spontaneity and
risk-taking. His rhythmic assurance, as befits a great chamber
player, is much to the fore and he brings fast moving Gavottes
firmly to life. He plays the first Bourrée of
the Fourth suite with a wonderful sense of motion.
The recording is now over 35 years old but sounds as fresh as
the day it was taped. The performances are beyond matters of
mere appellation, beyond ‘historically informed’
or ‘conventional’ performances. They simply feel
right - in terms of tempo, of tone, of articulation, of characterisation.
Above all, these are living and breathing interpretations. The
only thing being paraded here is the music’s greatness
and the artist’s role in acting as the agent of that greatness.
Masterwork Index: Bach
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