It’s fascinating to read in the accompanying booklet why Alfia Nakipbekova chose to make this recording in the remote location of Papa Westray, an island in the Orkney archipelago. Home to the medieval church of St. Boniface, long since fallen into dereliction but restored by local builders and re-dedicated in June 1994. Since that time it has become an occasional concert venue, hosting such artists as Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley. In August 2007 Nakipbekova undertook a ‘Bach Marathon’ there, performing all six suites featured here. Blessed with an ideal acoustic, she decided that St. Boniface Kirk would be a fitting place to make this recording, in November 2007. James Hesford (the producer) explains the logistical problems a remote location affords, which began with a two and a half day journey to the island. As the Kirk has no gas or electricity, a generator had to be borrowed from a local farmer and manually carried across the fields. Half the cycle was set down on this occasion. A return journey in 2008 to complete the proceedings was met with meteorological setbacks, which resulted in some of the cycle being completed in a local studio.
Alfia Nakipbekova is a name I am not familiar with. She was born in Kazakhstan, starting the cello aged seven with Roman Mazanov. She later went on to study with Rostropovich at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. This was augmented by master-classes with Daniil Shafran. 1981 saw a move to the West, setting up home in the UK and renewing her studies with Jacqueline du Pré.
The Suites for Solo Cello were 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 was able to devote his energies to these suites, the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, the Brandenburg Concertos and the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
These compositions have been criticized in some quarters for being dry and academic, almost akin to technical exercises. What distinguishes great performances from mediocre ones is the performer’s ability to breathe new life into them, and Nakipbekova does just this. These are masterful accounts resplendent in nobility and stature with a vein of humanity running through each. No-one can fail to be won over by the wit and rhythmic drive of the G major Courante. The Prelude of No. 4, which in some hands can sound desiccated and monotonous, is beautifully articulated and has a life to it. On the other side of the coin, there is an underlying spiritual dimension in the Sarabandes of the Third and Fifth Suites. Throughout, tempi are well chosen and rubato is subtly applied. Nakipbekova has the technical mastery truly to realize her vision of these sublime masterpieces.
The recorded sound captured in both venues is first class and offers the listener an intimate experience. You may be asking, do we need another recording of the Bach Cello Suites in an already crowded playing field? Nakipbekova’s readings are inspirational and she brings something fresh and spontaneous to them. There’s nothing routine here, and no-one coming to these recordings will feel in any way short-changed. These performances stand side-by side with the best.
Masterwork Index: Cello suites