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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for Solo Cello (transcribed for the viola by Simon Rowland-Jones)
Suite No.3 in C major BWV1009 (c.1720) [20:03]
Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV1008 (c.1720) [16:21]
Suite No.6 in D major, BWV1012 (c.1720) [27:22]
Maxim Rysanov (viola)
rec. June 2012 (No.2) and May 2013 (Nos. 3 and 6), Länna kryka, Sweden
BIS BIS2033 SACD [64:49]

With this release Maxim Rysanov completes the undertaking he began on BIS1783SACD, a disc released back in 2010. He has clearly paced himself in these two discs, released four years apart. For this new one he recorded Bach’s Second Suite in June 2012, and the third and sixth in May 2013. He also took care over the bows he used; Hill and Bernard for No.2 and Alfred Lamy for Nos. 3 and 6.

All this suggests an element of apt preparation for what remains the daunting undertaking of playing the Cello suites on the viola in the arrangement made by fellow-violist Simon Rowland-Jones and published by Edition Peters. It wasn’t until Lilian Fuchs’s cycle in the period between 1951 and 1955 that violists became truly aware of the potential for recording the set, though many, including the veteran William Primrose baulked at performing the sixth. He did allow 1978 performances of the first five to be recorded – they have been released on Biddulph – but he would never be cajoled into taping the last, considering it unsuited to viola arrangement.

Note the bows. He has selected a lighter bow for No.2 and his intention, I’m sure, is to keep the music alive and alert. Its dance imperatives are strongly to the fore and it’s telling that though he isn’t as fast as Primrose – who was compromised in his old age by hearing and therefore pitch problems – he is significantly faster than Fuchs. The mediation between expressively free, on the one hand, and informed performance practice, on the other, is well negotiated. This is in no sense a HIP traversal but it is certainly not at all glutinous in the old Russian way of playing Bach when even players as perspicacious as Rostropovich had besetting anxieties about the cello suites.

In the notes Rysanov alludes to the fact that he was determined to take No.6 at ‘face value’ and play it in D major. By abjuring the easier and more commonly taken alternative of playing it in G, he vests the music with an even greater sense of intensity. Fortunately he has been careful to calibrate vibrato usage, and this, allied to his propensity for brisk dance patterns, means that the music is always vibrant and always exciting. Indeed this is some of the most exciting such playing on disc. It is also more vital and faster than Gérard Caussé’s cycle on Virgin Classics 9076652, but not as expressive or as touching in the slower, more involved movements.

In a well-judged acoustic, with SACD sound, this is a very rewarding and detailed performance of the three remaining suites. It may well send you back to the earlier disc, or maybe BIS will repackage them together at some point.

Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Cello suites