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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for unaccompanied cello BWV1007-1012
Rohan de Saram (cello)
rec. 2009-2017, St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, UK
Stereo 24/192 (as reviewed) and 24/96
CLAUDIO BD-A CR5995-6 [151:15]

Rohan de Saram’s recording career goes back at least to the 70s and his concert giving to the late 1950s. I cannot be sure if this is his first recording of the suites, there are suggestions that he made a full set earlier in his career. However, what matters is this current set. The first thing to say is that he goes for broader tempi than, for example, János Starker, but de Saram is by no means the only performer to take as long as 2˝ hours. He plays all the repeats, as one would expect and, if it matters to you, he plays at modern pitch A=440Hz.

All recordings of these unique compositions must be labours of love because, with the possible exception of the first suite, they are all extremely difficult to perform. Two suites, the fifth and the sixth, pose special problems. The fifth requires scordatura tuning for the A string, and the sixth was probably written for a smaller version of the cello, one with five strings instead of four. In fact, no one knows exactly what instrument was intended by the composer for the entire set and there is not only a lot of speculation but also several recordings “proving” how well some of the alternatives can be used. I remember Sigiswald Kuijken talking about the use of a shoulder cello, a violoncello da spalla, as a viable option and proceeding to play a demonstration of his thesis with the instrument slung around his neck and shoulders like a modern guitar and played with an up-and-down motion of the bow. De Saram, in common with most, uses a normal cello throughout.

For the collector there are many alternatives to this set, even on Blu-ray there is one, no less a cellist than Pierre Fournier, whose 1961 set was issued in a handsome box of 2 CDs and one BDA in 2019. The recording there scarcely shows its age save for the presence of some faint tape noise. The Claudio issue is free of that at least. Beyond Blu-ray there are the famous sets by János Starker, an earlier one from Fournier, from Paul Tortelier, Rostropovich, Isserlis, Casals, you name the cellist and they have probably done it, excepting Jacqueline du Pré it would seem – invitation for someone to disagree with references!

The presence of alternatives is not to suggest a “best set” is even possible. Such comparisons are nonsense I feel. All that matters is, might you like this one? De Saram is a fine player still and his playing has a sense of absorption in these remarkable scores. The scores have no guidance as to tempi, indeed no manuscript in Bach’s hand has ever been found, just copies. The best guidance is the movement names, gigue, sarabande etc., from which can be judged the style, tempo and rhythm expected. De Saram goes into much of this in his extensive notes. No two performances sound the same, even from the same cellist, so in a sense this is simply a record, in the archival sense, of what Rohan de Saram felt like doing on these particular days. This is certainly as valid as any other, provided the notes are played correctly, which of course they are, and that one can hear clearly what he is playing. The latter was reasonably possible even in the earliest recordings but in the well-nigh perfect sound Claudio always seems to record one misses nothing. The only unwanted sounds were from the generous acoustic of St Bartholomew’s when rapid passages were accompanied by many faint reflections to give a distant chattering effect. I stress this is faint and maybe you would not even notice.

So, is this one worth adding to the collection? I think it is, if only because it is another view to add to however many others one has collected over the years. Personally, I’m rather attached to the Starker because I bought one of his LPs (Nos.3 and 6) on now ancient Saga vinyl back in the early 60s and was bowled over. Anyone new to the suites could be equally bowled over by de Saram. Go for it.

Dave Billinge

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