Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for Solo Cello
Suite No 1 in G major BWV 1007 [18:20]
Suite No 3 in C major BWV 1009 [24:29]
Suite No 6 in D major BWV 1012 [30:30]
Suite No 2 in D minor BWV 1008 [23:07]
Suite No 4 in E flat major BWV 1010 [24:43]
Suite No 5 in C minor BWV 1011 [27:54]
Michael Kevin Jones (cello)
rec. 3-10 October 2002, Kirtlington Park Room, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
EMEC E-056/7 [73:10 + 76:45]
The cover for this release announces “the 1667 Antonio Stradivarius cello” as if we are supposed to nod sagely in recognition, but there is barely a mention of this instrument in the booklet notes other than its having been “privately loaned” for this recording. It doesn’t appear in the Wikipedia list of Stradivarius instruments, and I have read elsewhere that it might originally have been a viol, the flat back of which having later been replaced by the curved back of a normal cello. If the date is correct then it would certainly be an early Stradivarius, the earliest known violin of his being dated as 1666.
Whatever its provenance, this is what might be considered a fine sounding instrument, though the recording quality makes this not the easiest thing to determine. Taken from its Oxfordshire home, the Kirtlington Park Room was moved in its entirety in 1931 and is now to be seen in all its Rococo glory at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This is then an ‘authentic’ acoustic for Bach’s music, but the recorded perspective allows the space to play too big a part for a true appreciation of Michael Kevin Jones’ musicianship. I quite like resonant acoustics in general, but in this case there are moments where detail becomes blurred, especially in livelier movements such as the Courante from BWV 1007.
Listening ‘through’ the acoustic you will find there is much to appreciate in the playing here. Tempi are by no means controversial. Michael Kevin Jones allows plenty of expressive breadth in the Sarabandes and creates plenty of contrast of character with the various dance styles, with bouncy and non-mechanical sounding Minuets, and while I would prefer a bit more forward impetus in the Gigues the feel for rhythm is usually well communicated. The light and shade differences between major and minor keys are nicely observed without over-cooking expressive weight over lyrical lines.
Putting the odd-numbered and even-numbered suites together on the separate discs is a feature of a recent comparison, Alisa Weilerstein on the Pentatone label (review).
That more recent recording shows where a closer recorded presence can involve us more with subtleties of nuance in the playing. Weilerstein indulges in slower tempi in general, and combines a reflective approach with plenty of rubato and a general lightness of articulation which has its own character. Like much great music there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ recording of the Six Suites. Even the legendary 1930s recordings by Pablo Casals (review) have rhythmic freedoms here and there that might make you raise an eyebrow. As often as not I still find myself drawn towards Steven Isserlis on the Hyperion label (review), but I still have a soft spot for Maurice Gendron (Decca), Pierre Fournier (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv), Yo-Yo Ma (review) and others. Each time I returned from any of these to Michael Kevin Jones I have the feeling I’m in a disc demonstrating the pitfalls of ambience when it comes to microphone placement, which is a shame since his playing is better than merely acceptable. There are however so many fine alternatives in this repertoire that this version is hard to recommend.