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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Bachiana
Cello Suites with piano accompaniment by Robert Schumann
No. 1 in G major [17:36]
No. 2 in D minor [20:06]
No. 3 in C major [23:76]
No. 4 in E flat major [25:18]
No. 5 in C minor [23:45]
No. 6 in D major [30:37]
Anne-Isabel Meyer (cello)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
rec. 2018, Carole Nash Hall, Manchester, UK
GRAND EMPIRICAL GECD0219 [61:20 + 79:42]

Bach is well known for his works for unaccompanied violin and cello respectively, where his expertise in writing for either instrument allows him to create up to four-part textures, despite the fact that on any such bowed instrument, it is only possible to sound up to two notes simultaneously on adjacent strings, due to the curvature of the bridge. The rest, as they say, is all down to the composer’s unparalleled ability to make the listener believe he is hearing more than one player, or instrument

Robert Schumann, who had made a serious study of Bach’s music, chose to add piano accompaniments to each movement from the original six unaccompanied Cello Suites, in an apparent attempt to make them more palatable to audiences in the Romantic period, less accustomed to solo string music.

At this point, things start to get a little hazy. According to one source, Schumann, using the Bach edition prepared by cellist Johann Friedrich Dotzauer and published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1826, wrote arrangements with piano accompaniment for all six Bach cello suites, having already done similarly for the composer’s violin sonatas in 1854. Schumann’s publisher accepted the violin arrangements, but rejected the cello ones outright. In fact Schumann’s only surviving cello-suite arrangement is apparently the one for Suite No 3, discovered in 1981 by musicologist Joachim Dacheim in an 1863 transcription by cellist Julius Goltermann. It is generally thought that Schumann’s widow Clara, along with violinist Joseph Joachim, destroyed her husband’s cello-arrangement manuscripts sometime after 1860, when Joachim declared them substandard, Writing in American classical-music magazine ‘Fanfare’ in 2011, reviewer James A Altena tended to agree with that critique, calling the surviving Bach-Schumann cello/piano arrangement ‘a musical duckbilled platypus, an extreme oddity of sustained interest only to 19th-century musicologists’.

Enter German cellist Anne-Isabel Meyer who says, in her own CD sleeve-notes, that, in 2015, she was invited to take a look at an old bound edition of ‘Bach’s Sonatas for Violoncello solo, with piano accompaniment, published by Dr W Stade’. Meyer subsequently performed the now-called ‘Sonatas’ in a cycle of three concerts in Edinburgh the following year, under the heading of ‘Bachiana’. Meyer makes mention of a book by Canadian writer and former music critic for the Montreal Gazette, Eric Siblin, entitled ‘The Cello Suites’, and published in 2009. Here he confirms Schumann’s rationale in adding the piano parts, mentioned above, as well as the fact that, despite a performance of all six Sonatas, where Schumann or his wife had accompanied a cellist from Düsseldorf, the works had not been accepted for publication.

Meyer goes on to quote a dissertation by Hungarian cellist and musicologist, Zoltán Szabó, where he states that several more arranged versions followed after Schumann’s cello-piano transcription, the first published version having been prepared by a Friedrich Wilhelm Stade, whom Meyer referred to at the start.

But if we’re to believe the earlier source I quoted, then only the score of Schumann’s transcription of the Third Suite (or Sonate) actually remained, asking the question just who was actually responsible for coming up with the other five?

Frankly the piano additions to all six suites really do very little to enhance them, or add anything significant, although it might be said that what we hear of the piano in the Third Suite – the piano is, in fact, always very much in the background in terms of recording balance on both CDs – would seem to suggest the hand of someone with greater expertise. Perhaps it really is Herr Schumann here, rather than the unknown organist and composer, Herr Stade, who perhaps is responsible for the rest.

In fact it all really comes down to one word, which Meyer bases her argument on. The original German on the old bound copy she referred to at the start says…’herausgegeben von Dr W Stade’. As Meyer correctly points out, the German word ‘herausgegeben’ has at least two meanings in English: ‘published’, or ‘edited’. Meyer favours the former, which suggests that somehow all six suites are still Schumann’s own work. On the other hand, Stade ‘editing’ them could cover a multitude of sins from just minor amendments to the score, to composing all the missing bits himself.

Then there is the question of tuning, given that string instruments without frets aren’t tuned in equal temperament, unlike the piano or guitar. The cello is tuned in pure perfect fifths – Pythagorean tuning – which works fine in ensembles, too, like string quartets, but requires adjustment when playing, say, with the piano. While there is a multitude of works for cello and piano, they have largely all been conceived as such..

The recording captures the cello tone well, but the piano seems so very distant and, as such, hardly gets any opportunity to add much to the ensemble, something which pianist Murray McLachlan is normally renowned for doing, in a conventional duo and above.

There are also better performances of the Suites out there, in terms of technical control and stylistic empathy, so, unless you are curious to hear what Schumann allegedly added via his piano accompaniments – assuming, of course, that they are all his own work – there isn’t really a compelling reason otherwise to give ‘Bachiana’ a spin.

Furthermore, my copy doesn’t appear to have any catalogue number, no timings are shown, and the label’s website was down at the time of writing the review. So, in order to provide readers with as much information as possible, I made a point of contacting cellist Anna-Isabel Meyer, who was able to clarify most points.

Apparently some months after Meyer had recorded ‘Bachiana’, she was to perform them in Edinburgh as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival. As is very much the norm today, performers always like to have some CDs for sale at the end of a concert, so everything was hurriedly thrown together in order to have something to offer a captive audience on the way out.

Consequently my review CD is actually one of this limited number which were pressed initially under very short notice, and which, as Meyer confirmed, accounted for the ‘teething’ problems I experienced with my copy. Meyer said that ‘Bachiana’ is also available on all streaming and download platforms world-wide, and from the Grand Empirical website. She was also able to add that while the website is temporarily undergoing reconstruction, it should soon be back up and running. Further pressings will include all track details and any information missing from my initial pilot release.

Philip R Buttall

 



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