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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Suites for Solo Cello
No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [20:38]
No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [23:26]
No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [26:08]
No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 [27:12]
No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [ 30:13]
No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [36:07]
Jean de Spengler (cello)
rec. live, March-May 2018, Chapel of the Château de Lunéville
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1575/7 [3 CDs: 163:52]

This excellently presented set contains a booklet interview between cellist Jean de Spengler and Alexis Galpérine, the set’s artistic supervisor, in which they discuss the Cello Suites at length. Spengler’s teacher was André Lévy who recorded the suites in 1962 at the age of 67 and he also studied them with Andre Navarra, whose 1977 recordings I reviewed. He confronts with directness and honesty the dilemmas posed by historically informed performances – some of which he adopted in previous encounters with the suites – and by his ultimate resolution to perform them in what I suppose one could term the traditional manner. He nevertheless considers his experiments with HIP to have been an invaluable stepping stone.

The suites were recorded two-by-two in front of an audience – hardly at all audible – followed by patching sessions. This gives a sense of focus to the performances. What is also evident is the expansive nature of the readings, causing there to be three discs, an unprecedented state of affairs in my experience. It’s clear that he is far from Lévy’s own conception., much less Navarra’s in respect of the music’s dynamism. Very rightly, de Spengler, now that he is 60 and a long-established orchestral principal and chamber player, is very much on his own personal journey.

His care for the music is clear from every bar, as is his characterisation of the various movements. This is particularly clear from the Preludes and Sarabandes; the former invariably highly reflective and laden and the latter subject to tonal and timbral differentiation. It’s noticeable that the Sarabandes in particular transmit a very evocative sense of introspection, through variations in colour and weight. For de Spengler the suites seem to become narrative super-structures, none susceptible to the kind of dance imperatives that cellists now find de rigeur. In fact, the music’s density, the fact that phrases taper and sometimes stop, that lines are often rigorously broken up, seems to suggest that de Spengler views the music horizontally and not vertically.

The problematic sixth sonata is subject to what is surely the slowest performance on disc at 36-minutes – and indeed each of the other suites is slower than almost every other performance I’ve come across. Normally tempo in itself is not necessarily a concern, especially when the results are, as here, consistently applied. But what the listener cannot escape is a micro-focus so absorbed that fluidity is sometimes drained away.

The recorded sound in the beautiful and acoustically impressive Chapel of the Château de Lunéville is splendid. So too, as noted, is the colourful and interesting booklet note. De Spengler’s performances are highly personal and personalised. The effect, to me, is one of a musician communing with the music - but communing also with himself – and threading through its fabric with deliberation.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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