Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello
No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [18:34]; No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [20:29]; No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [23:57]; No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 [26:16]; No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [ 26:39]; No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [32:09]
Mary Costanza (cello)
rec. 11-15 March 2008, Katherine M. Elfers Hall, Esther Eastman Music Center, The Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, Connecticut. USA
MSR CLASSICS MS 1450 [69:12 + 78:55]
It is significant in two respects that we have this recording of the six Bach cello suites. First of all, we can trace in Mary Costanza a performance tradition with lineage back to Pablo Casals. Her teacher was the Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova, who studied these works with the master himself. Secondly, it was his 1930s HMV recordings that Costanza listened to as a young girl, and from which she drew inspiration. The boy Casals had stumbled upon the Grützmacher edition of the works in a second-hand bookshop in Barcelona, and was responsible for bringing them into prominence as an integral part of the cello repertoire. They were thus saved from languishing in obscurity having previously been regarded primarily as mere technical exercises.
Composed in Cöthen around 1720 when Bach was in the service of Prince Leopold, they form part of a group of secular works which were penned by the composer around this time. For once, not being in the service of the Church, he devoted his energies to these suites, the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, the Brandenburg Concertos and the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Six Cello Suites are now considered staple fare and the field is awash with countless recordings. Some of the versions I am particularly fond of are those by Fournier, the earlier Tortelier, Rostropovich, Janigro, Yo-Yo Ma (1983) and Maurice Gendron. I listen to them often and, together with the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, I find them both intellectually stimulating and a means of cleansing the aural palate. Any performer coming new to these works faces a daunting task, being confronted by so much illustrious competition.
Each of the suites begins with a prelude followed by a set of dance movements. Costanza’s preludes are beautifully realized, never sounding mechanical or wooden, or with that rigidity one sometimes encounters. I detect great flexibility in her playing. The dance movements all have energy and drive, with crisp articulation. The sarabandes are beautifully phrased. She brings to these works a wealth of imagination. The Suite no. 5 in c minor, my favourite of the set, is permeated with a deep melancholy and introspection.
Costanza produces a rich, full-blooded tone on her 1832 Giovanni Dollenz cello, using her own edited version of the Suites, which she eventually hopes to publish. Her performances evince an innate sense of style. Pacing, phrasing, tempi and dynamic contrasts are all convincing. Intonation is spotless. Her technique is formidable and she performs these masterworks in a cultivated and compelling way.
The 1982 Tortelier cycle was recorded in Temple Church, London, and is marred by an over-resonant acoustic. The Rostropovich traversal from 1991 was also recorded in a similar cavernous church acoustic, but with more success. This impacts adversely on two otherwise distinguished sets in that too much resonance can obscure detail. Conversely, Fournier and Yo-Yo Ma (1st recording, 1983 ) are furnished with an ideal acoustic, one which allows the detail to emerge. Elfer’s Hall places Costanza’s recording between these two extremes. Whilst the venue confers a certain amount of resonance, it is neither undue nor are detail and clarity sacrificed. The cello sound is not too forward, and unlike the Tortelier (1982), the playing is not ‘in your face’.
These performances augment an already well-represented catalogue, and admirers of these works will not be disappointed. I found them an enriching experience.
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Bach cello suites

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