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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Cello Suites [1720?] [2:40:50]
No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 [20:43]
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [24:01]
No. 6 in D major BWV 1012 [33:59]
No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 [23:34]
No. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [27:53]
No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [30:40]
Alisa Weilerstein (cello)
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio, Berlin
PENTATONE PTC5186751 [78:43 + 82:07]

It has been five years since I reviewed a recording of these immortal suites by another celebrated female cellist, Nina Kotova. That recording was controversial, attracting an almost bewilderingly contradictory range of critical responses, and I have no reason to suppose that the reaction to this latest one from Alisa Weilerstein will be any different, as people seem to have quite fixed ideas about how they want this music to go. My previous acquaintance with Weilerstein was via her equally controversial recording of Elgar’s cello concerto, which I loved while still acknowledging that its overt emotionalism would not be to all tastes. The first, obvious observation to make regarding this new recording is that its tempi are very leisurely; Weilerstein indulges in plentiful expressive rubato and lingers over phrasing in a decidedly Romantic fashion, She is not the first to do so; one has only to set the free expressivity of Rostropovich against the austere classicism of Fournier or the fleet, steely concentration of Starker to demonstrate the interpretative range these suites invite but Weilerstein’s leisureliness is nonetheless striking: overall, she is twenty minutes slower than Rostropovich, nearly 25 minutes slower than Nina Kotova, half an hour slower than Pablo Casals’ pioneering recordings for EMI in the 1930s and a staggering fifty minutes slower than Janos Starker. Timings must surely have a major impact on how Bach’s suites come across and the listener is certainly aware of a lot of expressive pauses and decelerations here, but they are by no means unmusical or irritatingly obtrusive.

Weilerstein produces unfailingly rich, gorgeous tone and characterises each suite appropriately and sensitively, even if sometimes I feel that we are veering away from the sober formalities of a Prussian court into the perfumed night air of a Venetian carnival – more the style of Il Prete Rosso than the stolid Protestant pater familias. In putting her interpretations on record at only 37 years old, Weilerstein is reversing her previous resolution to eschew recording them until she was older; her justification for this is given central prominence on the back cover of the cardboard digipack housing the two CDs: “The intrinsic impossibility of this music is the very source of its freedom.” I am not sure that I understand the import of this apparent paradox nor, if I do, do I necessarily agree with its logic, such as it is – but there we are; its mantra seems to have freed the soloist from the constraint of having to delay her wish to record this Everest of the cello repertoire.

Her technique is flawless, even in the more demanding final two suites where the scordatura of No. 5 and the complexities of music probably written for a five-string instrument in No. 6 present special challenges, and her intonation is especially pure and accurate – an area where some find fault with Rostropovich, for example. Technical wizardry, such as the double-stopping in the Gigue concluding No. 3, presents no obstacles to her; she has every weapon in her armoury.

Playing through all six suites, I found myself especially impressed by the marriage between her dusky, buzzing bass tones and the brooding intensity of her interpretation in the tragic outpouring which is No. 2; this is soulful grief incarnate and for me the highpoint of the set. Perhaps it was for artistic as well as practical timing reasons that the suites are divided between the two discs as they are, with the three lighter works on CD 1 and the three darker suites on the second CD. This means that the second half of the programme is one of undiluted sobriety, but as few people would listen to all six straight through, the choice is there of playing either the lighter first disc or the gloomier second, according to mood and taste. Her command of phrasing in the lyrical melismata of the Allemande in No. 6 – the longest movement in the set of six suites – exercises a kind of hypnotic spell over the listener; it is a distillation of timeless beauty.

By contrast, Weilerstein’s manner in No. 4 is rather too leaden and deliberate. Coming between the two most melancholy suites on CD 2, it is the grandest and most majestic of all six and to my ears requires more lift and spring than Weilerstein applies, especially in the descending passages of the Prelude, However, that is a passing criticism and the sincerity and concentration of her playing are never in doubt; furthermore her affect there is consistent with the mood of the companion suites either side of it. The concluding suite No. 5 puts the seal on a virtuoso performance of considerable courage and individuality; if you respond to the unrushed intensity of her delivery you will derive great satisfaction from these performances.

I find the sound to be perfect: just enough air and distance around the instrument to suggest a performing space and not so close that we have to share the performer’s every intake of breath or hear every click of the bow.

There is no shortage of recordings of these masterworks; every cellist of note has recorded them and very few to my knowledge are dull or routine; in fact, as the crude comparison of timings above indicates, there is a wide variety of approaches – but the Bach cello suites are tolerant of interpretative diversity and there is certainly room for Weilerstein’s on my shelves.
Ralph Moore

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