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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cello Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007 [19:43]
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [21:06]
Cello Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009 [24:50]
All suites arranged for theorbo by Hopkinson Smith
Hopkinson Smith (German theorbo)
rec. October 2012, MC2, Grenoble, France
NAÏVE E 8937 [65:39]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cello Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007 [16:02]
Cello Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009 [19:07]
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [23:39]
All suites arranged for viola - unidentified
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
rec. May and September 2012, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne
NAÏVE V 5300 [58:48]

Naïve has just simultaneously released two new projects of Bach cello suites arranged for other instruments: a many-course lute called the German theorbo, transcribed by performer Hopkinson Smith, and the viola, transcribed by party or parties unknown and played by Antoine Tamestit.
Tamestit’s viola CD is an absolute treat. He plays with a lightness and tautness that keep the quick dances bouncing, the slower movements singing, and the baroque spirit very much alive. His Stradivarius and baroque bow produce gorgeous tones, dark but sweet, and Tamestit himself is one of our finest violists and I loved his Berlioz album. It’s informative to compare his timings in the suites to Hopkinson Smith: No. 1 is four minutes faster; No. 3 is six, a joyful, exuberant performance that nevertheless doesn’t shortchange the sarabande. I do wish the booklet told us who had made the transcriptions; Maxim Rysanov, another superb violist, plays versions by Simon Rowland-Jones. Rysanov also plays with modern bow and strings and a fuller, richer, more “romantic” sound versus Tamestit’s sprightly times and fresh phrases. I wouldn’t be without either one.
Hopkinson Smith’s playing on theorbo is more patricianly, more sedate. This is in part because of the instrument, which affords more room for chords and allows the performer more time to linger between notes. It’s also because of Smith’s temperament, I think, one which sees this music as regal and timeless rather than spontaneous and in-the-moment. Quoth the performer in his booklet notes, “The tempos may occasionally be somewhat of a surprise to listeners….with the resonance and fuller harmonies of the German theorbo,” there is “no need to rush through. The silence beyond the music is [a] constant friend.”
The difference is most noticeable in the Third Suite, where Smith focuses deeply on the music’s poetry and Tamestit simply sounds very happy to be alive. Personally, I prefer Tamestit’s vision of the music, which is more clearly influenced by the period-instrument movement of recent years with its fleet tempos and liveliness. But that’s a matter of taste; they’re playing very different instruments, literally speaking playing different music even, and Smith has great dignity and poise. Dignity is an especially good word for his noble but restrained way with the emotion of the Second Suite.
It’s a mystery to me why Naïve’s production is so different between the two CDs. Tamestit’s album gets a full-color booklet with lavish design work and indeed the track-listing alone goes on for six (!) pages. Hopkinson Smith has to slum it in black and white, though he writes his own excellent essay about the music and the decision to label this instrument, advocated by Silvius Weiss for his sonatas, a “German theorbo”.
Both volumes will appeal strongly for Bach enthusiasts and I have enjoyed them both considerably. Smith’s second volume is already released, although I’ll confess to being more eager for Tamestit’s. His way with Bach suits me very well indeed.  

Brian Reinhart 

Masterwork Index: Bach cello suites