Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for Solo Cello (1720)
No. 1 in G BWV1007 [19:05]
No. 2 in D minor BWV1008 [20:58]
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [24:48]
Jitka VlašŠnkovŠ (cello)
rec. Protestant church, Korunni, Prague, 2014
ARCODIVA UP0173-2 [65:14]

The Bach cello suites did not always occupy the pinnacle of the cello repertoire which they do today. We owe it to Pablo Casals for bringing them out of the practice room into public concerts. His recording, made in the 1930s and still available (review), was for many people, including myself, their introduction to these pieces.

They were written in or around 1720, while Bach was living and working in CŲthen. At this time Bach had virtuoso instrumental players available but no choir, so most of his surviving instrumental works date from this time. He also wrote the solo violin sonatas and partitas during the same period. The cello works are simpler in texture than the violin works, with less double and multiple stopping, and he does not attempt fugues for solo cello, as he did for the violin. This might mean that the cello works are earlier but we cannot be sure. Each suite follows a similar pattern, with an opening prelude followed by a sequence of dance movements.

Jitka VlašŠnkovŠ is Czech. She studied at the Prague Conservatoire where she won lots of prizes. She joined the Martinů quartet in 1986 and since then this ensemble has been the main focus of her work. The quartet recordings of their eponymous composer have won prizes; this disc appears to be VlašŠnkovŠ’s first recording as a solo artist.

She plays an eighteenth century cello made by Gagliano, but I did not hear any particular attempt at period style. This is fine romantic playing in the Casals tradition. Her tone is immediately captivating: rich and dark, like a tropical hardwood with plenty of character. It is as unlike a saxophone as you could imagine – I have nothing against the saxophone, but its virtue is its smoothness, whereas VlašŠnkovŠ’s cello tone is characterful without being harsh. I fancy that she particularly enjoys as a woman being able to be eloquent in the baritone register where she could not sing with her voice. Certainly she relishes reaching for the occasional deep notes which Bach requires.

She is a serious player and this characterizes her work here. So I consider she is at her best in the sarabandes: expressive while maintaining the singing line and also, while allowing rhythmic flexibility, keeping the feeling of a dance. Conversely, in the faster movements such as the Gigues she is less joyous than some.

For comparison I turned, not to Casals, as my LPs were long ago traded away, but to one fairly recent version, by Steven Isserlis, and an older one, by Heinrich Schiff. Isserlis is a more light-hearted, playful player than VlašŠnkovŠ, possibly even a bit lightweight in the Sarabandes but very varied and sometimes conversational. In comparison VlašŠnkovŠ is more oracular. Schiff is more intense and sinewy where VlašŠnkovŠ is rich. These are different but equally valid ways of playing this music: Bach more than most composers encourages and survives different styles of playing. There are now so many good recordings of these suites, as you can see from the MusicWeb International Masterwork index on them, that it must be a matter of personal taste which you choose.

This disc is only of the first three suites; most recordings now are of all six in a set. I expect the others will follow and some may prefer being able to acquire them separately. The recording was made in a church, which has the right degree of reverberation to enhance the cello sound without becoming obtrusive. The engineers did an excellent job on this and VlašŠnkovŠ’s sound is a pleasure to hear. The sleeve-note, in English and Czech, is short and not very helpful, and there is a mysterious brief note by by VlašŠnkovŠ herself, in which she links the suites to the poetry of Rilke. I cannot see the connection myself and I must write it off as a purely private association of hers. Isserlis incidentally sees links with the mysteries of the rosary, unusual for Bach the Protestant but a better fit than Rilke.

Stephen Barber
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