Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Cello Suites (1720?)
No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 [17:55]
No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 [22:12]
No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [28:02]
No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 [21:09]
No. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [23:49]
No. 6 in D major BWV 1012 [31:34]
David Watkin (cello)
rec. 26 March - 12 Dec 2013, Robin Chapel, Edinburgh
RESONUS RES10146 [68:19 + 76:42]
None of the other ten or so recordings I own of the Bach Cello Suites is played “authentic, original instrument” style, but urged by the plaudits of knowledgeable fellow-music-lovers and encouraged by the number of awards it has received, including the Gramophone Best Baroque CD of the Year, I took a chance on this and am very glad I did so; it is a triumph. Its success is made all the more significant and poignant by the fact that David Watkin has since had to relinquish his solo career as a cellist as a result of the onset in 2013 of scleroderma, an auto-immune disease, but fortunately he is able to pursue an alternative vocation as a conductor.
I do not have perfect pitch but was immediately surprised by the first notes until I realised that Watkin was using baroque pitch, essentially a semitone lower than modern tuning, so it is F sharp which strikes the ear in the Prelude of the Suite No 1 in G major. Furthermore, the complete absence of vibrato and rubato might offend traditionalists but Watkin's musicality and the laser accuracy of his flawless intonation - a rare thing even among the greatest cello soloists - in combination with the musicality of his phrasing bring enormous rewards.
The differentiation between tempi is never self-conscious or “applied”. His speeds are generally brisk – as a whole, the timing of individual suites is at least two minutes faster than the norm - but not in the breathless, insensitive and doctrinaire manner that afflicts more extreme period practice - and he takes many of the Allemandes very slowly and soulfully, especially the one in No. 6. Nina Kotova's account is in fact several minutes faster and I noticed no undue rush there, even though I am habituated to Rostropovich's leisureliness. A criticism of Kotova was that there was a lack of variety of tonal colour in her sumptuous playing; that is certainly not the case here. Watkin’s sustains a “pulsing” momentum but deliberately varies the intensity of phrasing between repeats to provide contrast.
His tone is often pleasantly raw - he is using gut strings and a baroque bow - and the joy he takes in playing the music infectious; highlights for me are the Gigue in No. 3, the immediately ensuing Prelude to No. 5 and the deeply tragic opening to No. 2. The change in tone, when, for the final five-string suite he switches cellos from a Francesco Rugeri instrument, c.1670, to one by Hieronymous Amati, c.1600, is very noticeable: its sound is lighter, wirier and buzzier - just right for a suite whose metaphysical import is suggestive of transfiguration and sunlight.
The sound engineering is ideal, capturing the atmospheric but not over-reverberant acoustic of the small chapel which was the recording venue. The booklet is handsomely produced, with informative notes by Watkin himself, nice colour photographs of the instruments and Watkin playing them.
I am not always enthused by historically informed performance but this recording presents period practice at its best – a superb account.