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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Complete Cello Suites, BWV1007-1012
Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007
Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009
Suite No.4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010
Suite No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Suite No.6 in D major, BWV 1012
Rohan de Saram (cello)
rec. 2009-2016, St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, UK
CLAUDIO CR5995-2 [3 CDs: 151:17]

These three CDs contain dramatic, deeply-felt, imaginative and justifiably personal accounts of all six of Bach’s Suites for solo cello - which (as far as we know) he wrote between 1717 and 1723 while serving as Kapellmeister at Köthen.

Each is structured as a conventional Baroque musical suite. The Prelude is followed by five Baroque dance movements… allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets, two bourrées or two gavottes, and a final gigue. Intense and highly demanding to play, these most profound of solo musical achievements were little known and performed until Casals revived them early in the last century.

It could be asked whether there is room for another interpretation of the Bach Cello Suites. British-born (in 1939) Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram, answers 'Yes'.

His playing is - as one expects - mature, considered, confident, compelling and revealing. From the familiar first few notes of BWV 1007, the G major [CD.1 tr.1], one is aware of de Saram’s determination to communicate with, involve and respect his listeners. There are no gimmicks to catch our attention. These wonderful works need no props. Yet there is a delightful freshness and spontaneity throughout.

Phrasing is intelligent, dynamics handled with care - not thrust on us in this recording’s close and slightly (but appropriately) reverberant acoustic. Cellists can have two underlying purposes in mind when approaching the six Suites. They can play the music as though it had been carved from stone - both the mould and the sculpture having always existed. Or they can project their experience, interpretation, emotion onto the Suites.

In this recording de Saram achieves something special by blending the two approaches. He plays with the assumption that we are more than casually familiar with these monumental works and that we are listening out of some deep and long-standing motivation and attachment... the gentle yet controlled variation in tempi in the Sarabande of BWV 1009, the C major [CD.1 tr.16], for instance, speaks of the music itself, and how it needs to evolve... not of any facet of performance. Similarly de Saram exposes the continuity and integrity of the music; the Prelude of the same Suite seems to flow and ripple out of itself - the lines and scordatura are not forced as if to emphasise how successful the player is in his modern ‘reading’ of cello technique.

Yet there is nothing evasive nor insubstantial or spuriously ethereal, nor merely evocative or self-indulgently impressionistic, in de Saram’s approach. It is strangely, but unmistakably, down-to-earth. Handy. Serviceable. At the same time expressive and markedly unambiguous. Neither ‘punchy’ nor overplayed. De Saram lets the music work.

So by his technique and personalisation we do sense that it is music which has always existed.

These are interpretations which are not built on surprise or novelty. That would be crass. Rather, de Saram (whose first recorded versions these may well be, although extracts by the cellist and others do appear in compilation on First Hand Records 11) uses a significant range of expressiveness; there is variety; his playing is as broad and multi-faceted as it is concentrated. In other words, it keeps your attention. Although you appreciate the depth of de Saram’s playing and insight, you are also aware of why the cellist wants gently to share the greatness of Bach’s writing.

The achievement, in sum, of these excellent accounts by de Saram is the balance he achieves between a colourful, personal and individual interpretation of Bach’s timeless works - on the one hand. And authority, accessibility and generosity on the other. Absent are both self-indulgence and insipidness in equal measure.

This review evaluates the CD version - note that there is also a Blu-Ray version available; it has been reviewed on MusicWeb (see below). The ‘fold-out’ CD case only secures CDs 1 and 2, the third CD (which contains the sixth Suite) just sits in the well left by the other two discs, which are properly secured at their centres.

Although this music will probably be familiar to anyone attracted to this CD, the five pages in the slim booklet are a bit of a disappointment. There are only brief descriptions of the characteristics of the aforementioned dance movements in the context of Bach’s suites, and a biography of de Saram. No details of his instrument - although Dave Billinge in the earlier review refers to the pitch used and the fact that de Saram observes all the repeats. To this should be added that the cello sound is sumptuous, full, woody and extremely satisfying; although, one imagines, richer than Bach would have known.

If you are not already a lover of this music, the performances here are likely to convince you of its beauty and profundity within a few minutes thanks to de Saram’s thoughtful and accomplished playing. If you are, then these make more than worthy additions to any collection.

Mark Sealey

Previous review (BD-A): Dave Billinge



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