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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Suites for Cello Solo
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [18:55]
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [20:56]
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [21:41]
Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010 [23:36]
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [26:51]
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [29:50]
Alfia Nakipbekova (cello)
rec. St. Boniface Kirk, November 2007 and December 2008; Ivanov and Chan Artists’ Studio, December 2008, Papa Westray, Orkney
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9050CD-2 [72:38 + 69:45]

Alfia Nakipbekova was born in Kazakhstan and started playing the cello aged seven under the tutelage of Roman Mazanov. She later went on to study at Moscow Central Music School and then with Rostropovich at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. At the age of 15 she was awarded the First Prize at The Central Asian Republics Competition and performed Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variation with The Kazakh State Symphony Orchestra. In 1981 she moved to the West, setting up home in the UK and renewing her studies with Jacqueline du Pré.

Her discography includes major chamber music repertoire for Piano Trio, Cello Sonatas and Cello/Violin Duos, including critically acclaimed recordings of Brahms, Martinu, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky for Chandos and Claudio. The Martinu disc was chosen as one of the CDs of the year by BBC Music Magazine. As well as having a busy performance and recording schedule, she is currently researching for her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Leeds, exploring 20th century cello technique and performance practice. She is also the Principal Lecturer in Cello and Chamber Ensembles at Leeds College of Music. I have never heard any of Alfia Nakipbekova’s previous recordings but I came to this Bach release with high expectations.

Ms Nakipbekova made this recording in the remote location of Papa Westray in the Orkney archipelago. The venue was the medieval church of St. Boniface, which is sometimes used as a concert venue. In August 2007 she undertook a Bach Marathon there, performing the complete set of six suites. This recording quickly followed in November 2007. A second session took place in 2008 to complete the set. On both occasions there was some stormy weather to contend with and listeners need to be made aware that there are some wind noises — quite atmospheric — to be heard in some of the movements. Some further recording was also carried out in a studio because of the problems caused by the weather. Rest assured that the finished product sounds fine.

J.S. Bach rarely features as a part of my regular musical diet let alone his Cello Suites. My preferences here are Fournier (DG) and especially Starker (Mercury). Starker would still be my first choice for his supremely clean technique and serious, studied approach captured in analytical if slightly dated sound. Alfia Nakipbekova has the advantage of a warm, resonant acoustic at her disposal and her lower register is particularly attractive. This strikes home from the very opening of the First suite’s Praeludium. She is placed well forward and you can virtually reach out and touch her from your position on the front pew of the church. Luckily, this proximity avoids the usual bow scrapes, sniffs and finger noises that can ruin many a recording. The playing is clean and spontaneous with the feeling of a live recital taking place. Starker has the edge in terms of clarity of articulation and total security of intonation but there’s very little in it. Nakipbekova takes a relaxed, romantic approach to the music. Her interpretation is a million miles away from being routine or bland. Bach can often sound mechanical in the wrong hands but not so here. There are some moments in the upper register where intonation strays and the playing sounds a little strained but these passages are few and far between. However, this is where Starker clearly wins out.

So what does Nakipbekova bring to the table? Most importantly, she presents us with a very personal account of the suites with admirable spontaneity and a life enhancing zest to the fast movements. The slow movements are played romantically and dig deep into the soul of the composer. The Sarabande from the Fourth suite is a prime example of this with its natural, unforced rubato and loving attention to the phrasing. If immaculate, technically faultless playing is what you are searching for then you need to look elsewhere. That’s not what this set is all about. For a musically moving presentation of the suites this recording has a lot going for it.

The cellist’s ‘Bach Marathon’ obviously gave her the time and opportunity to develop and deliver her vision of Bach’s masterpieces in the recording environment and I found the whole thing heart-warming. Minor criticisms of technique and intonation must be put into perspective. Slips are rare and soon pass but they have to be mentioned in any A/B comparison with the best.

I’m a bit confused about the provenance of this recording. The attractive gatefold packing, with its excellent notes, is labelled as a WCM release but a piece of Cameo Classics artwork is attached to the front. I am assured by Nimbus that future product will be over-printed and what I received for review is purely an interim measure. I assume that the Cameo label is, in this instance, merely marketing the product for WCM via Nimbus. The recording and interpretation are both very enjoyable and the set is a strong contender but not as a primary choice.

John Whitmore

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank