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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Cello Suites (transcr. Rachel Podger)
No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 [16:34]
No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 [20:10]
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [20:09]
No. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [21:42]
No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [22:21]
No. 6 in D major BWV 1012 [26:24]
Rachel Podger (violin)
rec. 2018, Angela Burgess Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCSSA41119 SACD [57:00 + 70:38]

Rachel Podger acknowledges the unusual nature of this recording project with her booklet note, “Cello Suites on the Violin: Legitimate or Loony?” Bach has always been part of her musical life, and over time she took to using some movements from the cello suites as part of her warm-up routine, finding that she “could feel these pieces joining the violin partitas and sonatas as another kind of ‘daily bread’.” Bach is Bach on just about any instrument, and Podger is merely following his own habit of “recycling his own compositions for different instruments and different uses.”

She is quite right in pointing out that, “with its smaller resonating body, the violin speaks more quickly and the immediacy of the sound enables it to be more flexible, flighty and agile than the more circumspect and gravitational cello.” The question remains however, does this deliver realistic, or even really desirable results?

Bach’s cello suites have been performed and recorded often enough on the viola for us to have become used to this music drifting away from its original instrument. There are even arrangements for flute which I’ve tried for myself, so I for have no right to argue against further experiment. Playing them on a violin is just another degree of separation, and with Rachel Podger’s persuasive musicality it doesn’t take too long for the mind to adjust. If this can be heard as just ‘Bach on the violin’ rather than ‘Bach wrested from the instrument for which it was written and rudely transposed’ then we’re already within easy reach of acceptance. The dance movements certainly work well, with Podger even adding some folk-like fiddle ornaments and effects in, for instance, the final Gigue of BWV 1007. Expression and depth are also well in evidence, with each Sarabande beautifully shaped and phrased.

The recording is very fine and made in a nicely resonant acoustic, but with the first disc has the feel of being a bit too small for comfort, with relatively close reflections emphasising the violin’s brightness of tone. This may be a side-effect of my use of headphones, but I tried this through different models and over speakers and came to the same conclusion each time. The sound is by no means unrealistic or unpleasant, but a larger hall or church acoustic might have helped. This is less of an issue with the second disc, with its scordatura tunings and darker colours, and a slightly more distant sounding perspective. The editing in of the lower notes in BWV 1012 doesn’t always work entirely convincingly, as you will find in the tricky Courante of this suite, which becomes something of a chimera.

Rachel Podger’s Bach Cello Suites played on the violin are certainly worth hearing, and as an alternative to convention have plenty to recommend them. As ‘something completely different’ this recording doesn’t pretend to compete with the numerous excellent cello recordings available, and it will be up to you to decide whether you want to explore. All players and listeners can however learn from this kind of expert and intelligent musicianship, and since when did we ever say ‘this is too much Bach.’

Dominy Clements

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