J. S. Bach: Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007

Media Review / Comparison

2023-10-05 — Original posting
2023-10-26 — Added Pablo de Naverán’s 2021 recording (submitted by Claves Records)
2024-01-07 — Added Petr Skalka’s 2020 recording (submitted by Claves Records)

Table of Contents

Introduction — The Recordings

This posting is about the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007, which Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) wrote as part of a set of six Suites (see the title page above). I am comparing the following recordings in my collection:

RecordingFirstNameLastNameBornDeathWikiWebPitch HzReviewSummary
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
a' = 432/415ReviewArtist, Media
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 392ReviewArtist, Media

Weba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1996Jaap, ter Linden1947
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2021Pablo, deNaverán1975

Weba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media

Weba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 400ReviewArtist, Media
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media

Weba' = 415
ReviewArtist, Media

Weba' = 400ReviewArtist, Media

Weba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
WikiWeba' = 392ReviewArtist, Media

Explanations on the Table

  • You can sort the table by any specific column (in ascending or descending order) by selecting the respective title field.
  • The first field is the year when the respective recording was completed (not necessarily identical to the ℗ or © years).
  • The birth year is not known for all artists.
  • The fields “Wiki” and “Web” are links to the respective artist’s Wikipedia entry and/or personal Website.
  • The highlighted column “Review” contains links to the respective entry in the comparison section (The Interpretations, Detail) below.
  • The green column “Summary” contains links to the respective entry in the comparison summary, featuring detailed Media information, as well as notes on artist, instrument, recording, etc.

Media Information

Details about the media (CDs) are available as part of the Comparison Summary on Bach’s Suites for Cello Solo. That information includes cover image, title, artists, technical media information (label, label-number, booklet info, barcode, amazon link, where available, plus additional information, as deemed relevant). That summary also features an overall comparison table.

About the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007

I don’t need to give a detailed introduction to Bach’s six Suites for Cello Solo, as they are all well-known. However, you do find some additional information on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007 in two of my concert reviews:

The Movements

Bach completed his Six Suites for Violoncello Solo senza Basso, BWV 1007 – 1012 around 1717 – 1723 in Köthen (Anhalt), presumably for himself, for the purpose of learning to play the instrument. From the first Suite up to No.6, the technical demands of these compositions grow. For cellists all over the world, this is considered the “Bible” of their repertoire.

Bach’s original manuscript appears to be lost. However, there is a beautiful manuscript, now identified as being a copy that Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena Bach (1701 – 1760) created around 1727 – 1731. The facsimile of Anna Magdalena’s copy can now be downloaded from IMSLP.

In lieu of explanations on the individual movements, I’m just including short excerpts from that document, showing the first 2 – 3 lines of each movement.

I. Prélude

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 1. Prélude, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 1. Prélude, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

Note that Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy isn’t nearly as accurate / reliable as her copies of her husband’s “Sei Solo”, BWV 1001 – 1006. Some claim that there are “obvious mistakes” in her copy. One can certainly say that her slurs are often inconsequent, if not even vague and unclear in their placement. Current editions correct these errors—though it is not clear whether these corrections reflect the composer’s original, intent. In his 2005 recording, Steven Isserlis included three versions of the Prélude that are based on alternative sources. However, these don’t really clarify the open issues.

II. Allemande

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 2. Allemande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 2. Allemande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

The large spread in tempo choices in this movement (see the table below) is interesting: in some artists’ hands this movement flows along like a Courante (albeit in 4/4 time, of course), with the crotchets around M.M. 80, i.e., a typical Andantino. And, of course, the dominating semiquavers make this sound very busy. However, these are extremes, outliers. Most of the artists rather perform around a pace of ♩=60 – 65, i.e., rather Adagietto.

From here on, all movements feature two parts with repeat signs. With one exception (Sergey Malov, see below), all artists perform both repeats.

III. Courante

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 3 . Courante, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 3 . Courante, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

IV. Sarabande

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 4. Sarabande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 4. Sarabande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

As already with the Allemande, there is a large spread in tempo with this movement. The fast performers may argue that the Sarabande originated from the Zarabanda, a lively dance in 3/4 meter in early Spanish music. However, when that dance migrated to Italy and then France in the 17th century, it converted to a slow court dance. I think this likely is what Bach had in mind.

An Ambiguity in the Notation?

I mentioned above that Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy isn’t nearly as accurate / reliable as one would wish for. One example is in the Sarabande: the four semiquavers commonly read f♯–c’–b–g. In AMB’s manuscript copy, the last note is a little ambiguous, in that it isn’t exactly between the lines.

Anner Bylsma (1979, 1992) is one of very few reading that figure as f♯–c’–b–a, with the subsequent f♯ trill starting on g. Only Isang Enders and Pablo de Naverán follow this path, which to my ears sounds a little “ordinary”. I prefer the standard reading. All other artists use this, irrespective of whether they start the subsequent f♯ trill on g or on f♯.

As an aside: there is a loosely observed convention stating that if the note preceding a trill is the trill’s auxiliary note, the trill itself should start on the base note. Conversely, if the note preceding a trill is the trill’s principal note, the trill should start on the auxiliary note. Bach often specified how exactly he wanted a trill to be performed.

V. Menuet I

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 5a. Menuet I, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 5a. Menuet I, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

To me, the presence of two chords in bar #4 alone indicates that this isn’t just a gentle, well-behaved Menuet, but a (dance) movement with verve and momentum…

VI. Menuet II

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 5b. Menuet II, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 5b. Menuet II, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

A little sidenote: the first bar contains a e’♭. Some editions explicitly state e♭ as the last note in bar #3. Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy (see above) shows e instead, while the equivalent passage in bar #7 explicitly states e♭. Some artists use e♭ in bar #3, others use e. On the cello, the distinction (e vs. e♭) is often hard to hear, so people don’t usually pay attention to this. Kim Kashkashian’s viola interpretation, though, exemplifies the distinction between e (bar #3) and e♭ (bar #7).

All artists perform the Menuet I da capo after Menuet II. With two exceptions (David Watkin and Myriam Rignol, see below), that da capo instance is performed without repeats.

VII. Gigue

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 6. Gigue, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 BWV 1007: 6. Gigue, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy is available in digitized form, from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz. This document is in the public domain and shared under a Creative Commons (CC-BY 4.0) International License. It is free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

The Interpretations, Overview

In order to provide a rating overview, as well as an idea about duration relations between the recordings, I have prepared the table below. Note that the color coding for the duration (blue = longer/slower, red = shorter/faster) refers to the average between the recordings.

Where artists omitted repeats, I have corrected the times to include all repeats, to make the times comparable. The table ignores the da capo instance of Menuet I. For the actual track times see the comments on the performances below.

Bach: Cello Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007 — comparison table (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Bach: Cello Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007 — comparison table (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)

I have not corrected the timings for trailing or leading blank time, with the one exception of the first and last movements, where such blank time is subtracted. One should read the timings in the above table with a grain of salt.


Not all artists perform all repeats. In the cases where repeats were omitted, the track timings were corrected in the table, by adding the time for the missing repeats to the duration. In that sense, the durations in the table is to be read as “if the artist had performed all repeats“. For the actual track and overall durations please see the section below. These may differ from the numbers in liner notes: I’m ripping the recording into Apple Music and use the times in the player software, which may use different rounding algorithms.

A Note on Ratings

First and foremost: all my ratings reflect my personal opinion, hence are inherently subjective. I use a 1 – 5 star rating scheme—simply because that’s what my player software (Apple Music) offers. I use the same scheme for concert reviews. You will note that for these, there are rarely reviews below a 3.0 (★★★) rating. That’s largely because I try to avoid concerts where I anticipate a marginal performance. And I stick to an “absolute” scale, where results below 3.0 are negative.

Ratings in Media Comparisons

In media comparisons, especially reviews involving a large number of recordings, I tend to use a relative scale covering the full range of (close to) ★ … ★★★★★, in order to achieve more differentiation among the many ratings. My rating criteria are similar to the ones in concert, such as

  • does the performance reflect the notation, i.e., the composer’s (perceived) intent?
  • does it present the character of the piece (e.g., in the dance movements in Partitas)?

Personal Views

My ratings also reflect how much a recording offers to me, particularly as a listener with interest in historically informed (HIP) performances. With this, I tend to give preference to HIP recordings. I do not mean to devalue the achievements of historic recordings by the great artists of the last century. However, time has moved on, and it is my belief that the in-depth encounter with HIP performances makes it hard(er) to enjoy some of the traditional recordings, especially romantic ones with heavy vibrato, etc. Again: this is my personal view, and I don’t mean to spoil the pleasure that the fans of past great cellists (or of polished, “modern” interpretations) draw from their recordings.


I should also mention that audiophile arguments play a secondary role in my ratings. My primary focus is on the interpretation, not perfection in recording technique. The latter comes into play mainly where it affects the audibility, clarity and transparency, e.g., through excess reverberation. And for newer recordings, blatantly dull, “muffled” sound should also have an effect on the rating.

The Interpretations, Detail

The review comments below are sorted by recording year, from the oldest (1936 – 1939) to the most recent one (2021). Note: for the artist’s life data, Website and/or Wikipedia entries please see the first table above. Also: in the artist segments below, the pitch is mentioned only where it deviates from a’ = 440 Hz.

Procedure, Technical Aspects

I listen to all recordings in full, typically even more than once. Note that the sequence of recordings below is not the sequence in which I listen to them. I have written about my comparison approach in an early blog post. In essence:

  • I go through the collection movement by movement, i.e., I start with listening to the first movement with all recordings before progressing to the next movement.
  • I try to choose a sequence that does not put subsequent recordings at a disadvantage. Typically, I start with slow performances, progressing to faster ones. At the same time, I try using a suitable sequence of historic vs. “conventional” vs. HIP interpretations.
  • Especially in large comparisons, such as this one, the sequence will typically vary from movement to movement.
  • In the sequence in which I listen to the tracks, I typically “just” move forward. If I relate to other interpretations, I refer to recordings I listened to previously, irrespective of the time of the recording. In other words: for older recordings I may use comparisons to interpretations of artists who may not even have been alive at the time of the early version. That may occasionally sound strange. However, in the interest of efficiency, I can’t risk “jumping around” to amend comments that I have already written.
  • Naturally, my comments will mostly refer to the recordings immediately preceding the one I’m writing about—in the listening sequence for that given movement (it is impossible to memorize all performances in detail). However, I try my very best to make the ratings absolute, not relative.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Pablo Casals (CD cover)
Pablo Casals (© Warner Classics)

Pablo Casals, 1938

Artist: Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973)
Instrument: Mattio Goffriller (1659 – 1742), Venice, 1700
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’28”)

How to criticize a pioneering recording of the artist who was the first to play the suites in concert in their entirety, and the first one really to take the Suites seriously, around a century ago? Difficult! Let me try giving a “neutral” / “objective” comment:

Casals essentially ignores the slurs in the (surviving) notation. With few exceptions, he plays the first part of the Prélude with legato articulation, with long, half-bar (sometimes quarter-bar) bow strokes. His playing is not uniform at all: he shapes long phrases with agogics and dynamics—and his Goffriller instrument is singing intensely. His articulation, his tone is always clear and well-defined. There is an occasional tendency towards momentary, “impatient acceleration” within certain motifs. One could view this as “instability”—on the other hand, it avoids monotony in the musical flow.

Without doubt, this is a “must-have” recording, a milestone in the reception history of Bach’s Suites. At the same time, Casals’ interpretations reflect their time, and hence they no longer can serve as models for current-day interpretations, at least in terms of articulation. It’s a highly valuable historic document, a true cultural monument, nevertheless. However, I cannot base my rating on sentimental values (except for a little “historic bonus”, maybe). I’m not rating artists based on their fame and reputation, but try judging performances, whereby the “benchmark” to me is a historically informed interpretation. And true: what is “state-of-the-art” also is and remains a matter of personal preference.

II. Allemande (3’41”)

In Casals’ hands, this becomes a fast movement, even though his rhythmic base is typically full bars. His playing is clearly in phrases, and there are pronounced agogics (acceleration and ritardando within a phrase). However, the artist does not present this as a dance movement. The articulation is differentiated, though not in today’s HIP sense: it mainly supports the phrasing, along with agogics and dynamics. The concept of Klangrede had not been (re-)discovered yet. This may not be an Allemande as we now understand it, but one can certainly call this interpretation enthralling and full of drive, with an irresistible pull forward.

III. Courante (2’32”)

Every motif, every phrase is filled to the rim with energy, and every phrase has momentum, is enthralling—and the music breathes! Sure, there isn’t much of the baroque “language” / “phraseology” that we assume for a given today. Interestingly, Casals does the quaver upbeats tenuto, but the subsequent (typically descending) quavers staccato. However, nothing in the interpretation feels like mannerism, but is Casals’ genuine, personal language and expression. A performance that still doesn’t feel “old”!

IV. Sarabande (2’23”)

Dense tone with intense (but harmonious) vibrato, tenuto / legato articulation in long / broad arches, verve in the chords. Klangrede wasn’t rediscovered yet at the time of this recording. However, there’s the irresistible intensity of Casals’ singing tone, the beauty of his cantilenas. Unique.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’14”)

Menuet I

Verve, drive intensity, emphasis, constant, active presence—classical. Fournier’s 1961 interpretation isn’t too far away. However, Fournier is focusing more on esthetics than on emphasis and expression.

Menuet II

A tad slower than Menuet I, less active, more reflective, gentler, maybe slightly sad / melancholic in atmosphere.

VII. Gigue (1’59”)

Formally a tad faster than Kim Kashkashian, Casals still sounds a bit heavier. This is due to the instrument, but also (mainly) due to the artist’s emphatic articulation, which combines intensely singing motifs with resolute and staccato passages. Very lively and detailed dynamics, predominantly played as 3/8 meter. Whatever: how could we possibly criticize the pioneer and “reinventor” of Bach’s Suites as concert pieces?

Total Duration: 16’17”

Rating: 3.5 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4.5 / 4 = 4.00

Comment: As stated above: a historic monument and must-have milestone in music history. A recording that also was my personal first encounter with Bach’s Suites: that interpretation is “burnt into my memory”. I hold it dear to my heart!

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Pierre Fournier, 1961 (CD cover)
Pierre Fournier

Pierre Fournier, 1961

Artist: Pierre Fournier (1906 – 1986)
Instrument: Charles Adolphe Maucotel (c.1820 – c.1858), Paris, 1849
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’50”)

I’m listening through these recordings movement by movement, and in descending timing sequence, i.e., from slowest to the fastest performance. It’s interesting that in this sequence (and this movement), Pierre Fournier follows directly after Myriam Rignol who stated in her liner notes that in her youth she grew up with Fournier’s interpretation. She may indeed (consciously of intuitively) have “inherited” the tempo. However, that is about the only connection that I can think of, as otherwise the two interpretations could hardly be more different.

Myriam Rignol’s performance is intimate chamber music, faithful to the score, whereas by nature, Fournier’s wants to make the instrument sound in a concert hall—with beautiful sonority in every single note. For this, he largely ignores Bach’s annotation, often performing quasi-legato. For longer periods, he is taking detached notes under a single bow, except close to a climax, where he needs more volume (and more bow). It’s an interpretation from a time where continuity of the flow was paramount. Klangrede? Not (re-)invented yet! But besides the sonority, there are these beautiful, long dynamic arches and impressive build-ups…

II. Allemande (4’18”)

A performance from a past age, clearly! As expected, Pierre Fournier fills the movement with his dense and vibrato-rich (yet highly harmonious) tone, with broad articulation, where the bow never leaves the strings. His playing is devoid of agogics. Using dynamics alone, Fournier forms big waves from the continuous flow of semiquavers. Typically, these waves follow the pitch, i.e., the climax typically coincides with the highest notes in a phrase. One could even say that the volume is (often) somehow proportional to the pitch (isn’t that unnecessary, as the instrument’s projection is strong in the upper strings already?).

From the point-of-view of HIP performances, one might call this concept horrible. It is antiquated. However, isn’t there “absolute” sonorous beauty in such playing?

III. Courante (2’45”)

How far this is from today’s interpretations! Yes, there is the beautiful, intense tone, Fournier’s vibrato—but where is the Courante dance? Fournier’s playing is resolute, extremely firm; all quavers are staccato, the crotchets and longer notes lasting and vibrating. The rhythm is fairly strict / firm, too, the dynamics from mf to ff are often rather loud. Phrasing: yes, but without agogics. Never, ever playful, let along dancing. Rather, Fournier plays this as if it was by Elgar or Dvořák—earnest, intense. Yes, beautiful in its own way—but barely Bach!

IV. Sarabande (3’21”)

Here, Fournier and Rostropovich share the same pace (the slowest cello interpretations, besides Isang Enders). One could claim that these represent typical early- and mid-20th century interpretations. Not just the pace is identical, but both artists perform each of the two parts as very long, broad phrases (two phrases in part II). Legato articulation prevails in the melody, of course. Here, one can see this a endless, intensely singing melody lines. However, Fournier is far superior to Rostropovich in that he offers breathing, not primarily in agogics, but in harmonious dynamic arches / phrases. This not only makes his singing tone more human-like, but also far easier to grasp—and vastly richer, much more beautiful. Even though more “room” between the phrases (for “mental breathing”) would not have hurt…

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’28”)

Menuet I

Not surprisingly, Pierre Fournier maintains his verve, percussive articulation, his intense, vibrating tone with emphasis on every note throughout the Menuet I. Even when he takes back the volume for the repeats. The rhythmic framework is rather rigid, the piece does not feel like a dance movement.

Menuet II

The second Menuet very much follows the same pattern, albeit a bit slower, a bit gentler. My main quibble (apart from the absence of dance character) is Fournier’s tendency to apply a conspicuous crescendo to ascending motifs in the descant, (bar #11 and the beginning of bar #13 in Menuet I, bars #18 and #20 in Menuet II). Such crescendo does not help in moments where the ascending pitch works like a “built-in crescendo. Adding a “bow crescendo” to a “pitch crescendo” feels excessive, counter-productive overall.

VII. Gigue (2’09”)

Nothing (almost!) against Pierre Fournier’s sound esthetics—but this interpretation misses the character of a Gigue—entirely. Fournier plays this as if it was written in 3/8 time, not 6/8. The latter implies two 3/8 periods per bar, and a Gigue typically is a light, jolly dance. Fournier, however, selects a slow, heavy pace (the slowest by far), emphasizing nearly every single quaver—a bad choice!

Total Duration: 18’51”

Rating: 3.5 / 4 / 3.5 / 4 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3 = 3.57

Comment: I can’t deny that apart from questions of “proper” baroque performance practice as we now understand it, Fournier’s performance undeniably exhibits inherent (absolute, so to say) beauty and esthetics. I can recommend this as a precious historic document showing cello esthetics of a (not so distant) past age—but not as a recording of Bach’s Cello Suites, or of baroque music in general.

J.S. Bach, Suites I, II, III for Cello Solo — Anner Bylsma, 1979 (CD cover)
Anner Bylsma

Anner Bylsma, 1979

Artist: Anner Bylsma (1934 – 2019)
Instrument: Mattio Goffriller (1659 – 1742), Venice, 1669; baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’12”)

Clearly, a pioneering HIP interpretation and recording! It sounds as if the sound engineer meant to demonstrate the roughness of the interaction between baroque bow and gut strings. Particularly in comparison with his later recording from 1992, Anner Bylsma’s articulation sounds rather noisy, rough. Up to the fermata in bar #22, the artist selects a much faster pace, and the subsequent part is far less differentiated from the first half than in his later recording—not much “cadenza feeling”, really. Clearly, Anner Bylsma’s 1992 interpretation is far more conclusive, compelling, even superb in the overall dramatic concept. And it is more careful in articulation etc., the sonority is far better, etc.

II. Allemande (4’24”)

Anner Bylsma ignores many (if not most) of the slurs in today’s “official” editions, even many in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy. This often results in rather uniform détaché articulation and makes me miss Klangrede and expression at the level of motifs. The basic alla breve beat is maybe a tad too regular?

There are passages where the tone is raw, if not noisy, and in the first group of semiquavers in bars #9 and #10, there is little or no response from low strings. This was (deliberately, I presume) left uncorrected. I do like the dynamics, phrasing and agogics across the bigger arches, though.

III. Courante (2’52”)

Also, there are many “noisy” notes—sonority control apparently wasn’t a primary objective. The playing (articulation, phrasing, dynamics) is as expected for a pioneering HIP interpretation. Overall, the performance is a tad (too) straight, if not occasionally even rhythmically a bit heavy.

IV. Sarabande (2’12”)

For general remarks on Anner Bylsma’s Interpretation of this Sarabande see my comments on the artist’s 1992 recording. It’s interesting to note that Anner Bylsma, one of the pioneers in HIP performances, would (in his earlier recording!) offer the fastest of the performances in this movement. He may have thought of the origin of the Sarabande as a fast Spanish dance? His interpretation is indeed far from the solemn, grandiose piece that many others make from this movement.

One feature which sets him off from all others (apart from the tempo) is the very pronounced short articulation, which often approaches staccato. In the aftermath, one might say that his interpretation wasn’t “quite there yet”: the staccato appears to defeat the momentum and some of the tension within motifs, and it equally makes if harder (for the listener, at least) to connect subsequent motifs / phrases, the performance feels somewhat fragmented. Even some of the slurred figures appear closer to portato than to legato. It’s an interesting and radical approach—but not entirely convincing yet.

I noted some details about trills in this interpretation: no trill in bar #5, while all the other trills begin on the auxiliary note. In bars #6 and #10, that auxiliary note is even expanded to an appoggiatura.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’29”)

Menuet I

Anner Bylsma’s 1979 performance is clearly faster than his 1992 recording. Lighter in articulation (discharging, staccato), but also stronger, more articulate, clearer—like demonstrating every slur performed. The overall impression, however, is a tad stiff, rigid / metric.

Menuet II

Pace and timing are identical to Menuet I. With this, also character and atmosphere are similar, the mutual adaptation almost perfect. Overall, though, I prefer Menuet II over Menuet I in this interpretation. Whether or not there should be a contrast between the two sister movements is an open question.

VII. Gigue (1’50”)

While the tempo per se is not slow, the performance feels somewhat static, lacking drive and free rhythmic swaying. Isn’t there a certain monotony in the articulation? The splitting of slurred quaver triplets into 2+1 or 1+2 is too persistent. And maybe also the staccato articulation, is a bit too present and ubiquitous?

Total Duration: 16’59”

Rating: 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 4 / 3.5 = 3.57

Comment: A pioneering HIP recording—though certainly superseded by now: it is for good reason that Anner Bylsma decided to re-record the suites 13 years later (see below).

J.S. Bach, Suites I, IV, V for Cello Solo — Mstislav Rostropovich, 1991 (CD cover)
Mstislav Rostropovich, 1959

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1991

Artist: Mstislav Rostropovich (1926 – 2007)
Instrument: Cello “Duport” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona, 1711
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’05”)

Yes, there is dynamic differentiation—but that’s about as much as I can mention as positive feature here. Rostropovich not only offers a very traditional, old-fashioned interpretation. It is highly mechanical, essentially a monotonous sequence of semiquavers, devoid of agogics, let alone even just traces of Klangrede. The only tones that stand out are the strongly (excessively) vibrating fermata and final chord. An interpretation from the “dark ages” where some people believed that baroque music featured constant, mechanical motion, as with a sewing machine. Frankly: boring.

II. Allemande (3’20”)

In view of today’s / current performances, this feels care- and restless, a monotonous flow of semiquavers. The fastest of the performances, even faster than Steven Isserlis. It is almost devoid of agogics—essentially just the ritardandi at the end of a part or of a long phrase. And there is very little differentiation—mostly dynamics. Sure, it’s technically excellent—but I would contest that this is a significant quality in this comparison, even among the modern performances.

III. Courante (2’34”)

The one differentiation I hear in Rostropovich’s performance is that he does the repeats p. Apart from this, there is a certain relentlessness in the performance, everything is emphasized, independent of volume. Barely anything reminds us that this is baroque music. Sure, it’s technically clean—but the music barely talks to the listener.

IV. Sarabande (3’21”)

Static, metric, continuous vibrating intensity (even where he moves into p)—like the slow movement of a romantic cello sonata of concerto. Endless / never-ending phrases that don’t leave room to breathe, devoid of agogics. Yes, the tone is beautiful…

V. Menuet I — (1’17”)

A rather straight interpretation, rhythmically uniform, if not rigid (one can almost feel a metronome running underneath), with regular “beats” on every crotchet period. At least, the artist uses some differentiation in dynamics (p segments). Sure, technically perfect, but…

I fail to understand why Mstislav Rostropovich persistently alters the last quaver in bar #22 from e’ to d’, which is also the first note in the following bar. A very conspicuous alteration for no obvious reason (everybody who is even vaguely familiar with the movement will instantly notice).

VI. Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’03”)

Identical in pace, lyrical, softer, more restrained, lighter in articulation. It’s just that the artist’s occasional, nervous vibrato does not add value to the interpretation.

Needless to say that the da capo instance of Menuet I has the same, odd alteration in bar #22 as the earlier instances.

VII. Gigue (1’41”)

An interpretation from the past, clearly. In comparison with other (traditional and modern) performances, Rostropovich is plowing through the piece like a truck, devoid of agogics, with little differentiation in articulation and dynamics (just a few echo effects).

Total Duration: 16’22”

Rating: 2.5 / 2.5 / 3 / 3 / 2.5 / 3 / 3 = 2.79

Comment: I once acquired this recording (on LPs, still) out of respect for one of the great cellists and musicians of the last century. That’s the best I can say about this performance. In the aftermath, I would say that Rostropovich should not have ventured exploring baroque repertoire. His strength is in 19th and 20th century romantic and post-romantic cello music.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Anner Bylsma, 1992 (CD cover)
Anner Bylsma

Anner Bylsma, 1992

Artist: Anner Bylsma (1934 – 2019)
Instrument: Cello “Servais” by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona, 1701; baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 432 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’49”)

While Anner Bylsma’s Prélude recording from 1979 was clearly faster-than-average, 13 years later, he selects a tempo that is moderate, and virtually identical to that of Pierre Fournier, 1961. However, Bylsma’s 1992 interpretation could hardly be more different from Fournier’s! Rather than focusing on the overall flow, Bylsma devotes care, attention to agogics and articulation in every (half-bar) phrase, of course staying truthful to the notation (slurs), shaping longer phrases with subtle tempo variations and dynamics. Where phrases extend over an entire bar or more, Bylsma subtly accelerates, forming larger units.

The section after the fermata in bar #22, begins and largely stays at a distinctly faster pace up to the climax in bar #39. This makes it sound like a beautiful cadenza, and the final bars feel transfigured, gentle, serene. Masterful!

II. Allemande (4’48”)

A pioneer in HIP performances on the cello, Anner Bylsma is far less “radical” in articulation and musical “language” at the level of “words” (motifs) than today’s HIP performances. His flow is more regular, calm, and he “thinks” in long phrases, and just as much on the big arches from the beginning to the double bar, and from there to the end. There is maybe a little too much focus on these big arches. There is agogic variation, but somehow, I don’t perceive this as musical breathing, let alone dance swaying. For the latter (and for the listener to feel the alla breve meter), the agogic variation is too much following the long phrases. In line with this, the artist does not “leave room” for ornaments other than those in the score. To a certain degree, the interpretation makes me long for “room to breathe”.

III. Courante (2’43”)

Interesting: as already in the Prélude, Anner Bylsma’s timing is virtually identical to that of Pierre Fournier, 1961. However, that’s just the overall timing, and it remains the only similarity! Bylsma’s articulation is light, often even mellow: play- and joyful. And the interpretation does breathe. There is “air” between the phrases, the music is relaxed, though in the extended semiquaver passages, the tempo unnoticeably accelerates, turns fluid, busy—without urge or rush, of course. Through agogics and dynamics, the artist creates a noticeable dance feeling: beautiful!

IV. Sarabande (2’27”)

The evolution from Anner Bylsma’s 1979 recording (the fastest one in this comparison) is dramatic. Of course, there are also many commonalities, such as the absence of extra ornamentation in the repeats, and the relatively fluid pace. One peculiarity of both of Bylsma’s interpretations is that the first notes in bar #4 appear as f♯–c’–b–a in lieu of f♯–c’–b–g, which to me feels inferior to the standard one—see also the note above. In this comparison, apart from Bylsma, only Isang Enders (2013) adopted this reading.

What then makes this newer recording so different? It’s all in articulation, phrasing and agogics! There is far less staccato, but true, melodious singing in every single phrase. Then, there’s very pronounced agogics, i.e., distinct broadening at the climax in every phrase, this leads to a swaying (dance) motion throughout the movement. Interestingly, that climax is not on the first beat, but typically on the second beat (crotchet) in every bar or phrase. All this makes so much more sense than Bylsma’s 1979 interpretation: coherent, conclusive, compelling! And the flow is far more consistent throughout. Moreover: amazingly, it does not feel too fast!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’40”)

Menuet I

For the first Menuet, this is the slowest performance—a little too slow, if not static. Gentle, continuous flow with very little agogics / swaying—barely a dance. The focus is on the (again gentle) big arches across the two halves.

Menuet II

Apart from the switch to D minor, the second Menuet almost seamlessly molds into Menuet I. Tempo (a tad faster) and general interpretation are very similar to the first Menuet. Still, the artist’s approach appears better suited for the more earnest, introverted nature of the D minor Menuet. It may be that Bach’s melody line makes this piece exhibit more swaying / “dance feeling”.

VII. Gigue (1’34”)

In contrast to the artist’s 1979 recording, this interpretation now is full of life, drive, momentum, with an irresistible pull forward: a joyful, even youthful ending to the suite. The only (minor) “hair in the soup” is the slightly excessive (old-fashioned?) ritardando in the final bars.

Total Duration: 18’02”

Rating: 5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 3.5 / 4 / 4.5 = 4.29

Comment: The second recording by a pioneer in HIP performances. From today’s perspective, it is far more convincing than the artist’s 1979 interpretation. It (mostly) fares well even in comparison with the latest recordings in the field of HIP performances.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Jaap ter Linden, 1996 (CD cover)
Jaap ter Linden

Jaap ter Linden, 1996

Artist: Jaap ter Linden (*1947, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Carlo Bergonzi (1683 – 1747), Cremona, 1725 – 1730; baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (3’19”)

Beautiful, full, rounded tone / sonority, careful articulation and agogics, such as broadening around key notes—Klangrede. However, isn’t that a tad too slow, too careful? I can sense the broad dynamic arches, however, following longer melodic and harmonic developments is hard, to say the least. And: despite the agogics, the music seems to be moving along fairly uniformly, lacking drama / narration. Within a bar, all notes have approximately the same weight (the main reason for the uniformity of the musical flow). The only big gesture that stands out is the final build-up and climax in bars 37ff.

II. Allemande (4’55”)

Beautiful sonority, considerate playing, careful, reflected articulation, calm, broad alla breve swaying, agogics in every motif. The pace is among the slower ones—at the point where it is still just about possible to follow the broad arches in the two halves (maybe hardly a dance pace?). There is vibrato on long notes—but it remains harmonious and natural, does not create an excess in contrast to the tones on empty strings.

III. Courante (2’53”)

Very pronounced agogics—though not (primarily) for producing “dance swaying”. Rather, Jaap ter Linden focuses on the quavers, which receive proper weight and attention. Unfortunately, many / most of the semiquaver-only segments appear rushed, as if the artist was in a hurry to return to quavers. This not only creates a certain unrest, but it also defeats any kind of dance swaying. A pity, as articulation, phrasing and sonority are just fine otherwise.

IV. Sarabande (2’53”)

Excellent, clear, and transparent sonority. Big gestures in the opening chords in both parts—not forced, not excessively pretentious, but with momentum and swaying. Thereafter, though, the artist seems to focus on flow continuity rather than Klangrede, i.e., narration, tension, expression. In the case of Myriam Rignol‘s interpretation on the viol (with which Jaap ter Linden shares the identical timing), this was the artist’s choice, based on the character of the instrument. Here, however, I miss tension and time to breathe between the opening gestures and the end of a section.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’28”)

Menuet I

Good tempo (right on average), excellent, careful, light, and clear articulation, agogic and dynamic swaying, beautiful sonority, momentum, verve. The only “deficit”: the repeats are exact 1:1 copies of the first passes: a missed opportunity!

Menuet II

See Menuet I—except that the second Menuet a tad more restrained, pensive / reflective, calm. And again, the repeats are exact copies of the first passes.

The only exception in playing without extra ornaments is in the da capo instance of the Menuet I (no repeats here), where Jaap ter Linden adds an inconspicuous little trill to the fifth quaver in bar #13.

VII. Gigue (1’51”)

Excellent, clear, and light articulation, detailed dynamics and agogics (across phrases), natural tempo, not pushed, Klangrede: harmonious, more than a simple dance, even without extra ornaments.

Total Duration: 19’19”

Rating: 3.5 / 4.5 / 3.5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 = 4.21

Comment: A solid, good (often very good) HIP performance. Recommended, though not at the top of the list.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Vito Paternoster, 1998 (CD cover)
Vito Paternoster (source: www.vitopaternoster.it)

Vito Paternoster, 1998

Artist: Vito Paternoster (*1957, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Lorenzo Carcassi (1737 – 1775), Florence, 1792
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’56”)

Vito Paternoster approaches the Prélude with light articulation, with a distinct focus on the first / lowest note in the initial half-bar motif, discharging the slur, adding a secondary focus on the first semiquaver in the second group. This creates a swaying motion within every motif. The détaché notes appear with slight spiccato articulation. The artist uses virtually no vibrato, and very articulate (occasionally almost extreme) agogics, and equally pronounced dynamics: Klangrede at its best!

People who are used to traditional interpretations may (initially) find this exaggerated. To me, it is just beautiful, and I don’t think that the artist is just trying to impress. To the contrary: many of the phrasing arches begin or retract into pp, and the artist performing every note with care and attention, without wanting to be meticulous. There is no trumping up with big (let alone legato) sound, although the warm, full sonority of the C string is impressive.

Vito Paternoster adds two extra ornaments—both are in bar #9, and both are inconspicuous, both snugly fitting into the melody line. I’m tempted to ask: why only these two?

II. Allemande (3’57”)

A “wild” interpretation, particularly in the dynamics, with “spontaneous” (accidental or careless?), eruptive highlights (“raw” accents, often on single notes) bursting out. These occur in unexpected moments, often on weak notes, such as upstrokes. Fairly extreme agogics, too. Rather fast in general, and in the agogics I can’t feel any half-way regular swaying, let alone the underlying alla breve meter. An Allemande, a dance movement? Barely! The articulation is detailed and light in general—full of extravaganzas, though.

III. Courante (2’46”)

I like the basic approach in (light) articulation and phrasing. It is a characteristic of this artist that there are occasional “spontaneous outbursts”—an interpretation full of life, for sure. Also, polished sonority certainly isn’t a priority for Vito Paternoster.

I do have a few quibbles, though: the flow isn’t always exactly coherent—there are occasional moments where the tension is dropping. More importantly: the artist has a tendency towards excess ornamentation. That may be OK in repeats—but why does the cellist add an acciaccatura to the third semiquaver (highest notes) in bars #1 and #3 already—in both passes? This alters the character of these motifs. The first pass of the second part features fewer ornaments, but, of course, in the second passes the artist can’t refrain from adding more ornaments. Does he want to prove his left-hand agility? Are fast movements really in need of extra ornamentation?

IV. Sarabande (2’49”)

Vito Paternoster uses (very) light articulation, the tempo is good (spot-on average), and there is lots of agogics. However, to me, the performance in this movement is riddled with arbitrariness. It’s a mix of staccato and legato. There is neither consistent flow, nor much regular dance swaying. Rather, there are hesitations and hold-ups, as well as stark accelerations and ritenuti in just about every phrase and motif. It’s hard to recognize the underlying meter. I don’t really know what to make of this.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’29”)

Menuet I

Vito Paternoster’s tempo in Menuet I is identical to Jaap ter Linden’s, and also their approach to (light, detailed) articulation is similar. There are differences, however, starting with a first, little ornament on the first quaver in bar #2. Some additional, extra ornaments then primarily appear in the repeat of the second part. These underline Vito Paternoster’s more playful, more light-minded interpretation.

Menuet II

The difference in pace between the two Menuets is smaller than with Jaap ter Linden. Yet, the contrast is much more pronounced: here, the second Menuet is heavier, darker, more earnest, almost austere at first. Soon, though, the artist compensates this with numerous (but not too many) added ornaments. Through these, the movement gradually appears to lighten up, ending in a positive, light-minded mood.

VII. Gigue (1’42”)

I like the general approach: articulation, differentiated dynamics, swaying. My main reservation is with the persistent acceleration towards the end—as if the artist wanted to “get this done quickly”.

Total Duration: 17’39”

Rating: 5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3 / 4.5 / 5 / 4 = 4.07

Comment: A good HIP recording / performance—with a few weak spots, though.

J.S. Bach, Suites or Cello Solo — Pieter Wispelwey, 1998 (CD cover)

Pieter Wispelwey, 1998

Artist: Pieter Wispelwey (*1962, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Barak Norman (c.1670 – c.1740), London, 1710; baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’23”)

In my listening sequence from slow to fast/short, this recording is almost in the middle (#14 out of 24). Technically, it is just a tad faster than the average (see the performances by Steven Isserlis, Emmanuelle Bertrand, and Pablo Casals). However, this is the first performance that makes me feel a fluid (as opposed to a reflected, if not often static) pace.

It’s the light, agile détaché notes that follow the three slurred ones at the beginning of the (initial) half-bar motifs, which create this impression. The focus, the emphasis is on the sonorous slurred figures on the first beat in every bar, which counterbalance the light-hearted détaché “tails”. In the first part, Pieter Wispelwey produces an echo effect, by taking back the volume in repeat motifs: every bar is “talking”!

After the fermata (bar #22), the artist chose the “cadenza approach”—the tempo is faster and very flexible. A cadenza with its own and specific narration—excellent! In the final chord, Wispelwey resists the temptation to play a loud arpeggio chord—he rather plays the notes sequentially, retracting into pp. The sonority of the instrument is rich in colors and character, the volume impressive, full, and warm, especially on the C string.

II. Allemande (4’54”)

Almost the same timing as Jaap ter Linden—however, distinctly more fluid within the phrases, more pronounced in the swaying, in the broad breath: the phrasing here is predominantly in entire bars. Lots of Klangrede, very detailed in articulation and dynamics. If there is any downside to this recording, then it’s in the more modest, slightly veiled acoustics, maybe less trying to expose “big” cello sonority than Jaap ter Linden’s recording. Is it Pieter Wispelwey’s (deliberately) more modest playing, or the lighter articulation / bowing? Compared to Jaap ter Linden, Wispelwey is much more restrictive in the use of vibrato.

III. Courante (2’49”)

Pieter Wispelwey’s basic pace is almost identical to Isang Enders‘—however, how different do the two interpretations sound and feel! Not a cold, technical performance, but an interpretation full of joy, speaking out of every single, smallest motif, swaying. Towards the end, the instruments sonority on the C and G strings is “boiling”. There are very few, but very well-placed and delicately played extra ornaments (mostly almost inconspicuous, some merely a subtle jeu inégal, like in the middle period of bar #23).

The microphone placement must be very close, as in many semiquaver motifs one can hear the fingers hammering on the fingerboard. To me, that is not irritating at all—quite to the contrary…

IV. Sarabande (3’04”)

In Pieter Wispelwey’s first recording, the Sarabande is one of the slowest among the historically informed performances. Yet, the artist manages to maintain beautiful agogic and dynamic swaying in every (crotchet) period. At the same time, despite the slow pace and the light articulation he can build long phrases. Calm, solemn, peaceful, yet intense, melodious. The only “extras” added by the cellist are chords on the second beat in bars #3 and #4 (in both passes; the latter also appears in Paolo Pandolfo‘s interpretation), as well as a single, small ornament in the repeat of the second part. A marvelous interpretation.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’21”)

Menuet I

“High-tension”, highly active and detailed dynamics, agogics, and articulation down to the smallest of motifs, if not every note. With all this, the interpretation easily beats any conventional or historical, even most other HIP recordings. A “highly pronounced and outspoken” performance “on the chair’s edge”, so-to-say. And the tension is maintained throughout the movement. Some may state that this is overly active, if not sometimes “locally fragmented” with the frequent staccato articulation, which limits (or distracts from) the impression of a dance movement. It’s a fascinating performance anyway, for sure!

Menuet II

Distinctly faster than the first Menuet, soft, slightly “covered” in sound, almost flashing by in a ghastly atmosphere. Several added ornaments in the repeats. Articulation, dynamics and agogics are as detailed, careful, and diligent as in the first Menuet, though offering more of a dance feeling.

VII. Gigue (1’43”)

In his first recording from 1998, Pieter Wispelwey has virtually the same timing as Thomas Demenga (2014) and David Watkin (2013). His performance feels slightly faster. Wispelwey’s approach to slurring resembles Watkin’s, though the interpretation has slightly more drive, more pull forward, feels more fluid. The one drawback of this recording is its limited sound quality.

Total Duration: 18’15”

Rating: 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 5 / 4.5 = 4.71

Comment: Already Wispelwey’s 1998 recording is among the top performances in this comparison. Still, the newer recording from 2012 beats it—not just in the recording quality, but also as interpretation.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Paolo Pandolfo, Viola da gamba, 2000 (CD cover)
Paolo Pandolfo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Paolo Pandolfo, 2000 — Viola da gamba

Artist: Paolo Pandolfo (*1964, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Viola da gamba by Lorenzo Carcassi (1737 – 1775), Florence, 1792
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz, transposed to C major
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’34”)

Paolo Pandolfo’s “liberal, transcriptive” approach reveals itself already in the first motif: the artist ignores Bach’s articulation (three slurred semiquavers, followed by 5 détaché notes. He puts an accent on the first (lowest) note, then plays the entire half-bar motif legato, in two bows (bow movements). With this, up to the fermata (bar #22), the movement consists of bass accents (typically two per bar), followed by a gently flowing / rolling line of semiquavers. In repeated motifs, the second instance is subtly marked as echo.

With the fermata, Paolo Pandolfo suddenly (largely) observes Bach’s détaché articulation, while at the same time applies more metric freedom. With this, the section after the fermata (up to the climax in bar #39) feels like a big cadenza, not unlike what Anner Bylsma did in 1992—just vastly more expressive, imaginative / fanciful, outgoing.

After the accelerating cascade of descending scales (bars #29 & #30), a little inverted mordent in the third semiquaver in bar #31 “sneaks in”. Then, in bars #33 and #34, and again after the climax, in bars #39 – #41, he shifts the low g (d in the original) down to the empty G string, with a strong accent, almost like drumbeats. However, after six “G drumbeats”, the last chord (G – b – g’ in the original, c – e’ – c” in the transcription to C major), his playing is surprisingly intimate and gentle. And here, the lowest note is shifted up: c’ – e’ – c”. As the artist explained in the booklet, the downshifting of the g to G meant to preserve the character of the bass string, despite the upwards transposition by a fourth.

II. Allemande (5’07”)

I was not really surprised to note that Paolo Pandolfo offers the slowest performance. After all, articulation and bowing on the viola da gamba are very much different from a cello—and so is the phrasing, the “language”. What I found most amazing, though, is that Pandolfo’s performance does not feel slow—at all!

The term “tempo” is deceptive here. Yes, the basic pace (especially if read as split time / ₵) is rather slow. However, Paolo Pandolfo takes an almost extreme approach to agogics. In his interpretation, every motif, every phrase is filled with tension and rhythmic swaying. Often, his jeu inégal is approaching punctuation. For example, in the opening motif (and again in bar #17), the semiquavers after the tied note almost appear as demisemiquavers. Thereafter, every phrase is swaying, breathing calmly, which makes the music come to life in an extraordinary way. And despite the slow pace, the artist shapes long phrases, and one can still sense the 2/2 pace.

On top of that, Paolo Pandolfo often enriches the melody line with little ornaments, such as inverted mordents (often on the third semiquaver in a group of four preceding an emphasized / highlighted not in a phrase), or little, casually inserted trills. One may see this as “French” addition—however, it indeed serves the music very well! Cellists may object to the occasional extra harmonization / chordal “accompaniment”. Yes, this isn’t strictly Bach—but why not use the opportunities offered by the viola da gamba? I find this fascinating!

III. Courante (2’51”)

Ah—the beauty of polyphony, and the beauty of (French style) viola da gamba playing!!! Polyphony? Bach’s notation includes one single double-stop note—the octave on the final note. OK, one might find hidden melodies in the semiquaver figures, but that does not make up true polyphony. Paolo Pandolfo offers much, much more! The “more” isn’t so much in extra ornaments (which of course are there as well, primarily on accented notes)—rather it’s in Pandolfo’s extra voices.

Of course, in this movement, on a single viola da gamba it would be impossible to add voices in the sense of keyboard works such as Bach’s two-part Inventions BWV 772 – 786, or the three-part Sinfonias BWV 787 – 801. Rather, the artist adds voices in the form of chords on accented notes—sometimes an entire semiquaver passage has chords added on every crotchet beat. These notes are not accompaniment in the form of a basso continuo. Rather, they form melodic fragments—extra voices, really—that appear below and/or above Bach’s main voice.

Paolo Pandolfo states that he was “filling in” voices that he felt “were there already” in Bach’s music—at least in Pandolfo’s perception. These voices aren’t just melodic / polyphonic enrichment, but they also add rhythmic structure and clarity. I can’t deny that I find this utterly fascinating, enthralling, brilliant, and beautiful (almost) beyond imagination! But OK: again, it is not Bach’s music, strictly speaking. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to listen to this on end…

IV. Sarabande (3’29”)

Ah—a surprise! No added polyphony or “basso continuo imitation”, not extra second or third voices here! Apart from some ornamentation, there are very few added notes: discrete chord harmonies with the trill in bar #4, as well as with the lower note of the falling octave closures in bars #8, #12, #16. And even those are intimate, “momentary resonances”. In bar #15, where Bach has four bass notes under a d (here: g) drone, Pandolfo just briefly touches the g, then plays the lower voice without accompaniment. Here, the entire Sarabande is a truly lovely, dreamy, intimate piece of endless inner beauty: magnificent!

However, one cannot say say that Pandolfo plays the Sarabande more or less as is—quite to the contrary! The artist “completely abandons the dance character”. His interpretation is the slowest of all—however, it does not feel slow. Rather, because of the artist’s extensive use of jeu inégal (sometimes enriched with extra transition notes), he lets the listener forget about the notion of tempo, of larger phrases or bigger form. Every half- or full-bar motif turns into a verse in a never-ending, reflective poem or dialog (a love poem, I should say). Endless calm, peace, and beauty. And yet, Paolo Pandolfo manages to maintain the big musical arches. A Sarabande, still? Barely—but does it really matter here?

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’23”)

Menuet I

At a first glance (i.e., superficially looking at the score during the performance), not much seems to have changed (apart from the transposition to C major, up by a fourth): the main melody line is essentially unaltered. Why then does it sound so vastly different?

As with Myriam Rignol‘s interpretation, the wide, arpeggiated chords (like the ascending, opening chord) require changes in the bowing (such as skipping strings, splitting into more strokes). Then, Paolo Pandolfo transposes to C major @ a’=415 Hz, i.e., almost a major third higher than Myriam Rignol’s interpretation in A major @ a’=400 Hz. This moves the piece more into the descant, and into more ethereal sound spheres. Indeed, the piece at times almost reminds of the sonority of a glass harmonica. That’s of course also because of the inherent sonority of the viola da gamba, and the different interaction between bow and strings.

Subtle Adaptations

However, there is more. Paolo Pandolfo of course adds a few extra ornaments, such as little, inverted mordents every now and then (e.g., the first quavers in bars #2 and #6). He does not add extra voices (apart from the expansion of the second chord in bar #4, which also Myriam Rignol adopts), and the addition of a chord to the bass note on the first beat in bar #16.

It took me a moment to realize the nature of one more, subtle adaptation: Pandolfo manages to let prominent bass notes, such as the very first one, or the lowest note(s) in bar #4, etc., particularly on empty strings, resonate openly. And such bass notes then turn into 1- or 2-bar drones. One could see these highlighted bass notes and the subsequent drones as “extra”, rudimentary second voices. However, it is fair to say that these drones are inherently already present in Bach’s music—just that cellists don’t exploit them. And Paolo Pandolfo merely unveiled hidden harmonies. With these simple means, Paolo Pandolfo appears to wrap the piece in a completely new harmonic robe, establishing a new, lovely and ethereal atmosphere / soundscape—as if illuminated through otherworldly colors of light filtered through medieval stained-glass windows. Beautiful, marvelous!

Menuet II

The Menuet II of course retains the viol sonorities. However, as Paolo Pandolfo takes it back, entirely into sotto voce, with “covered” sonority, into intimacy, into “private space”. It’s not really dark, let alone sad, as in some cello interpretations—just very slightly melancholic. Do the open resonances on the viola da gamba even brighten up the minor key? The subtle and discreet extra ornaments highlight the “private”, intimate character of the interpretation. Cozy, lovely, beautiful!

The da capo instance of Menuet I is without repeats—expectedly. However, the artist could not resist adding a little “after-thought”, an “echo”, by softly repeating the last eight bars (#17 – #24). Ravishing, enchanting!

VII. Gigue (1’47”)

Fast, beautiful, fascinating! Apart from the transposition to C major, the first instance of the first part (bars #1 – #12) is almost unaltered (exceptions: mordents on the first quaver in bars #1 and #12). Then, however, Paolo Pandolfo “lets his horses loose”! In the repeat, on to the second part and its repeat, most of the quaver triplets have a powerful, accented double- or triple-stop chord (fast arpeggio) attached to the first note. This has two effects: for one, it fills the piece with harmonies. Harmonies which Pandolfo claims or feels are already (implicitly) present (or implied) in Bach’s composition (certainly in the artist’s mind). Then, just as much, it gives the Gigue a strongly rhythmic component (like drumbeats), resulting in a really folksy dance. This adds tremendous drive and momentum: absolutely enthralling, unheard of, mind-boggling!

Total Duration: 19’11”

Rating: 4.5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 4.93

Comments: With all his adaptation, expansions (ornamentation, etc.), Paolo Pandolfo ends up with a rich, undeniably beautiful arrangement. This includes major contributions by the artist, who declared that he took the liberty of occasionally adding notes, even (secondary) voices that he felt were “inherently / implicitly” present in Bach’s music. The irresistible desire to tell stories, to explore hidden gems in Bach’s music (or in the musician’s imagination?).

Clearly, Paolo Pandolfo’s interpretation on the viola da gamba is an outlier. The above rating only partially relates to that of the cello interpretations: it mostly just reflects the pleasure that I draw from listening to this, ignoring questions of strict authenticity.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Steven Isserlis, 2005 (CD cover)
Steven Isserlis / ZKO — Zürich

Steven Isserlis, 2005

Artist: Steven Isserlis (*1958, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Cello “De Munck-Feuermann” (& Parisot) by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), Cremona, 1730
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.; the Comparison Summary also includes additional information on the four versions of the Prélude in Isserlis’ recording.

I. Prélude (2’29”)

Spot-on the average pace in this movement, and virtually the same tempo as Paolo Pandolfo—but what a difference! In a way / at a first glance, this feels like a canvas on which Pandolfo is painting his vision of the Prélude! I don’t mean this to sound deprecative on the part of Steven Isserlis. It’s just that the latter is meticulously following the notation down to little details (slurs, in particular), where Pandolfo “rethinks” the music, such that it suits the characteristics of the viola da gamba. Again: I’m just characterizing first impressions.

As stated, I don’t imply that Isserlis’ interpretation is necessarily academic, dry. And yet, compared to, e.g., Anner Bylsma, it does feel like a meticulous, “no frills” interpretation. Isserlis does shape phrases with subtle dynamics and agogics. However, at the level of (half-bar) motifs, he only applies limited Klangrede, and as Bach did not mark p / f, he does not use echo effects in repeated motifs. Also, the text after the fermata (bar #22) essentially stays “as is” (no “cadenza feeling”), except for the final build-up from bar #37 onwards. Isserlis applies vibrato to key / peak notes—a remainder of traditional school performances?

Ia. Prélude (2’27”, from MS Anna Magdalena Bach)

I’m listening to all performances carefully, with the score—and it took meticulous inspection to locate a few changes in the slurs. I’m sure that listeners without a score, and who don’t play the cello (and/or know every note by heart) have a hard time telling the differences. I looked at Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript page (available from IMSLP) and compared it to the Urtext edition—a pointless exercise (for this movement, at least), as the slur placement is unusually superficial and inaccurate in the hand-written copy, leaving room for interpretation.

Ib. Prélude (2’25”, from MS Johann Peter Kellner)

Here, Steven Isserlis performs from a manuscript copy by Johann Peter Kellner (1705 – 1772). Compared to the text that most cellists use today, this presumably is the oldest available copy (probably dated 1726). It includes more, and more obvious changes in the slurring. In addition, there is a rather conspicuous deviation in the first notes of bar #36, and the absence of a tie after the fermata in bar #22. To me, the Urtext version makes more sense, both in bar #36, as well as in the (tie and) slur placement. Is it just that I’m used to hearing the Urtext version?

Steven Isserlis suspects that this version was copied from an earlier, preliminary version of the Suites, which might explain some of the differences.

Isserlis also mentions that the Kellner version includes substantially more ornamentation than the other (later) versions. However, that does not apply to the Prélude. It would have been nice to hear that in a comparison.

Ic. Prélude (2’30”, following MS from the collection Johann Christoph Westphal)

A third alternative source exists from the collection of the organist and publisher Johann Christoph Westphal (Hamburg). Apart from (mostly inconspicuous) changes in the slurring, there is one evident deviation in the last notes of bar #27.

To musicians and musicologists, the three extra versions in Steven Isserlis’ recording may offer valuable insights into the differences between these versions and their effect on the music. To the average listener, though, these extra tracks offer little, if any benefit. An example illustrating the differences in ornamentation might have proven more interesting. A description of key differences in text form (with score samples, maybe) might have been easier to grasp / understand, and even more instructive. Overall, the three extra tracks indeed feel like an academic exercise.

II. Allemande (3’22”)

Together with Mstislav Rostropovich (not a reference here!), Steven Isserlis offers the fastest performance, even faster than Benedict Kloeckner. Unlike with the latter, the détaché articulation is less prominent. Rather, there is more of a fluent, smooth(er) flow of semiquavers. There certainly are agogics to support the phrasing in big arches—but very little in terms of alla breve or full-bar swaying. An Allemande? A dance? Barely. Rather, somewhat breathless. However: well and carefully played? Sure!

III. Courante (2’30”)

Almost identical timing as the performances by Pablo Casals and Benedict Kloeckner. In terms of energy and drive/momentum, though, Isserlis is closer to Casals than to Kloeckner. Albeit not as resolute as the former. Strong dance swaying through articulation, dynamics and agogics. Some extra ornaments in repeats—well-fitting and in style. Overall, though, Isserlis’ performance does not really feel like a HIP performance of baroque music—it is maybe a tad too polished, and as with Kloeckner, there are moments that feel a tad didactic (rather than playful).

IV. Sarabande (2’46”)

Isserlis does not focus on Klangrede, or on “local language” within motifs. Rather, his approach is a lyrical one, where central elements are legato or near-legato articulation, the very long arches. The latter are masterful—but still, the interpretation feels like an “in-between” approach. It (luckily!) avoids all romanticism, keeps an intimate, if not modest tone / attitude. On the other hand, it can’t compete with the richness in “local expression” in, say, Pieter Wispelwey’s (1998, 2012) recordings. Yes, one can feel dance swaying—but it remains subtle, almost inconspicuous (e.g., with momentum, acceleration and ritardando in every swaying period).

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’20”)

Menuet I

One may characterize Steven Isserlis’ articulation as “percussive and elastic tenuto“. It is light, as he takes back the volume across longer notes, but typically does not leave gaps between the notes. The artist does not enforce the dance character—agogics are limited, the performance forward-leaning, active. The accents on the crotchet periods are maybe a tad strong, which makes the performance sound relatively metric, if not a bit didactic. There is one single extra ornament—but only in the da capo instance.

Menuet II

The second Menuet feels more relaxed, more balanced, calm, flowing, lyrical and atmospheric, introverted, almost cautious. Quite a contrast to the first Menuet.

VII. Gigue (1’47”)

The articulation is somewhat broad, often quasi-legato, the tempo fluid. The permanent (and unnecessary) vibrato across all quavers puts this into the area of conventional interpretations. The occasional, affectionate, and intense passages, as well as the pronounced ritardando at the end confirm this. Sure, it’s technically perfect…

Total Duration: 16’15” + 7’21” = 23’36” total

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4.5 / 4 / 4 / 4.5 / 4 = 4.14

Comment: I was expecting / hoping for a more historically informed (HIP) approach—but that’s not Steven Isserlis’ domain, I presume. However, if you are looking for a more conventional interpretation, then that’s certainly one to consider.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Jean-Guihen Queyras, 2007 (CD cover)
Jean-Guihen Queyras (© Jean-Guihen Queyras)

Jean-Guihen Queyras, 2007

Artist: Jean-Guihen Queyras (*1967, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Gioffredo Cappa (1644 – 1717), Saluzzo, Italy, 1696
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’17”)

Not overly metric, but a constant flow of semiquavers, expressive not through Klangrede or agogics within the motifs, but though harmonious and differentiated dynamic arches. Jean-Guihen Queyras observes the slurring, his articulation is neither too broad, nor approaching staccato or spiccato.

The artist does not try sounding “historic” (he uses a modern bow and a modernized cello with regular, metal-clad strings). In many ways, it is a modern interpretation—though certainly not an overly polished one, and I would not dare using the word “conventional”. It is not mechanic, monotonous or “aseptic”, but expressive through diligent phrasing / dynamics. However, it would have profited from Klangrede / additional agogics (and more differentiation in the articulation) at the level of motifs.

II. Allemande (4’25”)

So far (#14 out of 24 in my listening sequence), this is the interpretation with the clearest, most beautiful, and harmonious alla breve dance swaying (through agogics and dynamics). There are several interpretations with much more Klangrede than this one—however, in its harmoniously continuous, conclusive musical flow, its internal coherence, this performance (so far) is unique. Inconspicuous in some ways (articulation, dynamics), devoid of extravaganzas, but natural, and compelling. And: to me, it does not feel sterile or intellectual.

III. Courante (2’25”)

Playful, light, fast—maybe a tad too fast and restless? However, Jean-Guihen Queyras’ playing still feels relaxed, free of mannerisms, and it feels neither didactic, nor ever stressed. Detailed and subtle in dynamics and articulation. Forming the big arches appears natural and effortless.

IV. Sarabande (2’30”)

Technically, some might call this “not strictly HIP”—the instrument is modern(ized), the strings are metal-clad, the bow is modern (Tourte-type). Musically, however: what a beautiful interpretation—and one that fulfills the criteria for “historically informed”! Jean-Guihen Queyras’ vibrato is very subtle and discreet, even rarely ever noticeable. I hear it in the first chords (very harmonious, more like “natural elasticity”), sometimes one can just barely feel it after the bow left the strings.

The tempo is relatively fluid, but the artist manages to maintain a beautiful dance swaying in 1-bar periods, and these periods link up to beautiful, long phrases. The most fascinating aspect of this interpretation, though, are the ornaments in the repeats: beautiful, varied, inventive, abundant, but not excessive! They are properly “in style”, and not just simple mordents, but ranging from trills to marvelous little fioriture—ingenious!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’06”)

Menuet I

With this recording (moving from slow to faster ones) we are entering the domain of fast(er) performances of Menuet I (Emmanuelle Bertrand matches the timing, only Sergey Malov on the violoncello da spalla is substantially faster). Clearly, meticulous work on articulation, agogics and dynamics on smallest motifs—as seen with Pieter Wispelwey (1998, 2012)—is not central to this interpretation. Without neglecting details in articulation, Jean-Guihen Queyras is rather focusing on flow, on dynamic arches in larger, 4- and 8-bar phrases. The interpretation features beautiful, harmonious dance swaying (with entire bars as basic meter): “integrative”, with joy, harmony, serenity.

Menuet II

The second Menuet takes longer for the same number of bars—not only because of a slightly slower pace, but also because Jean-Guihen Queyras plays this as introverted, introspective movement with “reflection pauses” between the phrases, especially at the ends of the two parts. And the repeats are even softer, almost like dreams. The dynamics are careful and diligent throughout. Coherent, conclusive.

VII. Gigue (1’39”)

Jean-Guihen Queyras may be playing a modern(ized) instrument and a modern bow—yet, his performance is truly historically informed in terms of articulation, phrasing, Klangrede. His interpretation is fluid, yet full of life, clear and clean in the articulation—superb!

The most fascinating aspect of this performance is in the dynamics. Queyras’ playing is highly differentiated, e.g., in the very subtle echo effects in subsequent, similar passages. In the repeats, the artist does not add extra ornaments—at this fluid pace, there is no need. However, in the repeats (especially in the second part), the echo dynamics are much more pronounced—to the point where in bars #19 and #24, the crotchet almost disappears.

Total Duration: 16’22”

Rating: 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 = 4.57

Comment: One can literally feel the artist’s youth- and joyful, high-spirited personality in this interpretation. Natural, devoid of idiosyncrasies. Refreshing, and highly recommended—especially for listeners who dislike the sound of historic instruments with gut strings and baroque bows.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Ophélie Gaillard, 2010 (CD cover)
Ophélie Gaillard (CC BY-SA-4.0; Cyril Gervais - Own work)

Ophélie Gaillard, 2010

Artist: Ophélie Gaillard (*1974, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Francesco Goffriller (1692 – 1750), Udine, Italy, 1737; baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’41”)

Beautiful playing, light in the articulation (and truthful to the score), devoid of unnecessary extras, little / inconspicuous vibrato (often none at all). Careful articulation and agogics within each half-bar motif. That’s the main focus in this interpretation. Large scale phrasing / structures remain relatively inconspicuous—with few exceptions, such as the build-up to the final climax in bar 39.

II. Allemande (4’35”)

A careful, diligent, and at the same time very personal interpretation. The latter primarily lies in two aspects.

  • For one, Ophélie Gaillard’s ornamentation is exquisite. Extra ornaments appear predominantly in the repeats. However, the artist does not overload the composition with her ornaments—they are well-fitting, placed diligently and retain their originality. In other words: they are neither too repetitive nor too predictable.
  • Then, there’s the articulation! Ophélie Gaillard offers an interesting mix of détaché and staccato / spiccato articulation—very light in general. Descending, broken chords (especially at the end of a phrase) are often spiccato, and even in pairs of slurred semiquavers, the second note is often staccato, i.e., very short (the bow is lifted off the string).

The highly differentiated, rich mix of articulation is a key element in making phrases “talk”: Klangrede not predominantly through agogics, but through articulation. Certainly a very interesting approach!

III. Courante (2’39”)

Except for the two quavers in bar 34 (falling octave), none of the quavers in the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach are under a slur. In fact, (virtually) all artists play the theme head in this movement shorter than just détaché—typically staccato, if not spiccato. All artists—except Ophélie Gaillard. In her interpretation, the upbeat is staccato, the two quavers on the beat are slurred, with the second note as “attached / appended staccato“. Once the listener’s ear takes notice of this quirk, it is impossible to ignore.

Now, some slurring liberty in Bach’s cellos suites is certainly acceptable, given the notorious inaccuracies in the available sources. This, however, is more: the above articulation peculiarity consequently appears in every instance, repetitively and predictably. It is ostentatious and runs against all conventions. It alters the character of the motif. I can’t see any reason for this other than a compulsive need to be different from anybody else. And that’s not a justification—rather, conspicuous mannerism. Note: say, 2 – 4 instances overall (and in repeats!) would be OK, in the sense of the artist’s personalization (like an ornament). Too bad: if I was able to “listen over this”, I would really like this interpretation!

IV. Sarabande (2’41”)

Inconspicuous, unpretentious in the first passes. Gentle flow, near-legato articulation, though frequently shortening closing quavers in a phrase or motif. This does not disrupt the flow—quite to the contrary: Ophélie Gaillard keeps the phrases connected within the big arches. Almost too connected, actually: there are “quasi fermatas” closing arches in bars #8, #12, and #16. However, between those, I sometimes wished for a little more “room to breathe” between motifs: was the artist afraid of dropping the tension between phrases / motifs?

The first passes are left untouched (no trill in bar #5). In the repeats, though, Ophélie Gaillard adds a few small ornaments, which is fine, even desirable. Almost all these ornaments (7 out of 8) are little inverted mordents, which is maybe a little uniform. Moreover, six of these inverted mordents appear on the penultimate semiquaver within a crotchet period, three in succession in bars #9 and #10, which makes this ornament uniformity a little too obvious.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’13”)

Menuet I

Gentle in dynamics, mellow in the articulation—an interpretation without “rough edges”. It is maybe a tiny bit fast—I sense instances of marginal control over agogics, occasional, subtle vagueness in the articulation, e.g., the slurred quaver pairs in bars #2 and #3. And the trill in bar #4 appears a tad slow / heavy for the chosen pace. Those are all nuances, though.

Menuet II

The pace is the same as in Menuet I—and it does not feel “fast” here. I do have a little question mark, though: the crotchets in bars #2 and #6 are strange mixes between tenuto and (soft) staccato—as if the artist couldn’t quite decide how to articulate these notes. This leaves the impression of vagueness, lacking firmness / clarity.

Interestingly, the da capo version of Menuet I feels a tad lighter and more convincing, more coherent than the first instance.

VII. Gigue (1’48”)

Good tempo, dynamics, clear articulation, nice tone / sonority. I noted some peculiarities in the slurring, though: I don’t see why the artist plays the figures with semiquavers (such as in bar #3) détache. To me, this deprives these passages of their inherent momentum. Also, I think there is too much staccato in end formulas (such as bars #11 and #12), which makes these figures sound unnecessarily hard.

Total Duration: 17’38”

Comment: A generally good interpretation — I particularly like the Allemande. Some peculiarities in articulation.

Rating: 4 / 4.5 / 3.5 / 3 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 = 3.64

J.S. Bach, Suites or Cello Solo — Pieter Wispelwey, 2012 (CD cover)
Pieter Wispelwey (© Carolien Sikkenk / www.photoline.nl)

Pieter Wispelwey, 2012

Artist: Pieter Wispelwey (*1962, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Baroque cello by Pieter Rombouts (1667 – 1740), Amsterdam, 1710; gut strings and baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 392 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’06”)

What differentiates Pieter Wispelwey’s 2012 recording from the earlier one (1998)? The new recording is half a tone down from the 1998 recording, a full tone below modern concert pitch. Certainly, this emphasizes the warm, full-bodied sound of the instrument, which is truly baroque (shorter fingerboard, flatter neck, gut strings). From the timing, the new recording appears over 10% faster (in fact, it is almost the shortest of the performances)—however, this is hardly noticeable, even in direct juxtaposition.

Pieter Wispelwey’s articulation is highly differentiated down to the level of motifs. The same holds true for the dynamics, e.g., in the subtle echo softening in repeated motifs. And motifs form part of larger phrases / “sentences”—Klangrede at its best!

Of course, Wispelwey maintained the good, compelling parts of the earlier interpretation, such as the cadenza feeling after the fermata in bar #22, which here evolves into true stylus fantasticus: wonderful! The final part of the “cadenza” again builds up to a climax, and in the final bars, Pieter Wispelwey now highlights all top notes (12 x g’ in bars #39 and #40, 6 x f♯’ in bar 41)—a jubilating, new rhythmic element!

II. Allemande (4’46”)

14 years after his first (1998) recording, Pieter Wispelwey’s new interpretation is only a tad faster. It sounds much more direct, more “radical” in some ways (more restrictive in the use of vibrato). I think this is the result of better recording technique (closer microphone placement), shorter, but more direct articulation (gut strings, more “attack” in the bow).

I particularly noted the short articulation with longer notes (quavers, punctuated quavers), where the artist deliberately leaves gaps. Not “dead” gaps, of course, but moments in which the bow left the strings, and one listens to the fading resonances in the strings within the instrument body. This draws the attention away from a regular alla breve beat / foundation, onto the narrative, the phrases / “verses”, and onto the exceptionally pronounced Klangrede. The latter is not so much oriented on slurs and bar lines, but rather on the melodic “language” within the boundaries of a phrase. A truly outstanding interpretation!

III. Courante (2’43”)

Compared to the artist’s 1998 recording, this newer interpretation is just a tiny bit faster (irrelevant, I should say). The main difference is that this recording is much more impulsive, if not eruptive in some motifs. Also, the articulation is clearer and more decisive, the tone is more characterful, has more “bite”, the flow is more consistent, in line with the big musical arches. And the agogics are stronger and more pervasive. Klangrede and swaying in every smallest motif! Boiling life, joy, expression, fun everywhere—even without extra ornaments!

IV. Sarabande (2’48”)

There are of course many similarities between this and Pieter Wispelwey’s 1998 recording. Examples are the approach to light articulation, the focus on phrasing / swaying / Klangrede. As in the first recording, Wispelwey also adds chords to the second beat in bar #3 and bar #4.

What are the essential differences, apart from a vastly better recording setup (clearer, more transparent, and spatial)? Generically, one could say that the new recording is more radical (less vibrato, clearer in the articulation), and at the same time also more liberal. The articulation is lighter (more gaps between notes) and more pronounced. Examples: the capricious staccato on the first two quavers in bar #3. Or the clearly paired semiquavers on the last beat in bar #7 that is carried over to the first four semiquavers in bar #8. Here, Wispelwey also discreetly adds select extra ornaments to each of the repeats.

Phrasing, Breathing

The most significant evolution in the interpretation, though, happened in phrasing / agogics dynamics. The new recording is featuring wonderfully harmonious, organic breathing. There is far less focus on singing / cantilenas, but rather on the rhythmic / agogic swaying. The result is simply masterful: it almost forces the listener to synchronize one’s breath with the music!

I also like how Wispelwey subtly tones down the repeats, taking back the volume, making them more intimate. This was, the repeats really aren’t repetitions, but rather comments, afterthoughts to the music that preceded.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’06”)

Here, as well as in all other movements, Pieter Wispelwey’s interpretation has become faster since his earlier recording in 1998. The tone has gained “bite”, the instrument offers bigger, fuller sonority, and the recording technique (clarity, spatiality) also has since improved.

Menuet I

In the basics, not much has changed in the interpretation since the first recording. Yes, it is a bit faster, and the tone certainly is more “grainy”, more colorful. Musically, the two recordings are nearly equivalent—there wasn’t much chance for improvements!

Menuet II

Same here: a faster tempo (one of the fastest in this movement), new, richer sonority than in the first recording. The new interpretation gives this piece a slightly different character: lighter, joyful, more playful, more dance swaying (agogics, dynamics). Overall, however, both of Wispelwey’s recordings are truly excellent.

The Menuet I da capo (without repeats) feels almost exuberant relative to the previous instance: even more “outspoken”, fun and joy, with extra ornaments. Almost like a last dance—but there is the Gigue, of course…

VII. Gigue (1’34”)

Hard to beat in clarity and differentiation in articulation, enthralling, rapid rhythmic swaying, “speaking” dynamics / Klangrede, drive, momentum, and an ideal mix of rhythmic and melodious moments. Masterful!

Total Duration: 17’03”

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 5 = 5.00

Comment: I’m not surprised to see Pieter Wispelwey come out as the top of this comparison—he already made it to such ranking in the comparison of recordings of Beethoven’s cello sonatas. Strongest possible recommendation.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Isang Enders, 2013 (CD cover)

Isang Enders, 2013

Artist: Isang Enders (*1988, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: “Joseph Gagliano, filius fecit 1720“; modern bow
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’07”)

Hmmm … Isang Enders offers a “modern”, fast interpretation—very clean, technically superb playing, no doubt. It is devoid of baroque Klangrede at the level of motifs. The articulation follows the notation. However, it is rather uniform across the movement. However, it certainly is not all mechanical and cold perfection. Isang Enders does allow for pronounced, momentary broadening and emphasis at highlights in longer phrases—almost exaggerated. What is exaggerated, though, is the strong accelerando after the four descending scales (bar #31 onwards). And: why on earth is the final chord so mannered, split into a long belly note on G, followed by the upper two notes alone, as a “stand-alone”, short, “wow” sixth?

II. Allemande (4’57”)

The slowest of the cello interpretations, only a tad faster (less slow) than the interpretations on the viol. For the slow pace, however, Isang Enders’ performance feels amazingly fluid, vivid, thanks to detailed and careful articulation, the attention to both the 2/2 meter and the long phrases. Everything just fine, if not perfect? Almost! Yes, performance, sonority and intonation are technically exceptionally clean, near perfect, and there is even the occasional extra ornament and rhythmic swaying. However, I can’t resist the feeling that it’s all intellectually constructed, and often rather predictable, also in the dynamics. Maybe too perfect, instead of filled with life and emotion.

A little sidenote: in the perfect playing, the occasional, noticeable (and yes, perfectly shaped) vibrato clearly appears redundant / unnecessary, given the frequent, long, and naturally vibrato-less notes on empty strings.

III. Courante (2’48”)

Clean, light articulation, though with a clear focus on showing off beautiful, perfect sonority. Examples: exposing the full, rounded tone on the C and G strings, the demonstrative endings. In the first part, the quavers are all staccato. Strangely, in the second part, some of the descending quaver figures appear tenuto—for no obvious reason. A few even appear as “polished belly notes”—why? And: the prolonged appoggiaturas on the very last octave (mostly a seventh, resolved only at the very last moment) appears mannered, odd. Cold perfection and mannerism rather than Klangrede with a narrative? To me, it has the scent of “consciously fabricated”.

IV. Sarabande (3’22”)

Hmmm … oddly, each note or two-note figure in the beginning appears as a little, stand-alone “belly accent”. This feels mannered, fabricated. And, in combination with the slowest pace among the cello interpretations, it also defeats the cantilena. The entire movement feels very much “note by note”, perfectly played, but aseptic, celebrated, devoid of emotion, let alone Klangrede in the sense of a coherent tale consisting of phrases, words. A disappointment.

As an aside: it doesn’t surprise me that besides Anner Bylsma (1979, 1992), Isang Enders is the only artist reading the first notes in bar #4 as f♯–c’–b–a in lieu of f♯–c’–b–g, with the subsequent f♯ trill starting on g—see also the note above.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’14”)

Menuet I

Technically perfect, down do every detail in sonority, articulation (light, “proper HIP style”), down to the one extra trill in bar #12 (second repeat). Too smooth / technical, lacking “bite”. Momentarily even a bit “celebrated” in motifs. There’s very little in agogics (if any at all), let alone dance swaying. The final 8 bars in the second repeat are a gradual ritardando, which is not only unnecessary, but feels like losing momentum (and the listener’s interest!).

Menuet II

Isang Enders is among the few who play the second Menuet substantially faster than Menuet I. Contrary to what the D minor key might suggest, this turns into a moody little, almost Scherzo-like piece, with the non-slurred notes played staccato. The slowdown at the end of Menuet I accentuates the change in character. It is again played with perfection—and a few dynamic mannerisms, such as belly accents on ending notes. Very careful in articulation and dynamics, but also feeling fabricated (too perfect, smooth, technical), lacking “life”. And this applies to both Menuets.

VII. Gigue (1’46”)

The tempo is almost the same as Jean-Guihen Queyras‘—and for a moment I was even tempted to say that Isang Enders is trying to follow Queyras’ footsteps. Superficially, a lot of the latter’s approach is there: technical prowess, clear and detailed articulation. However, in direct confrontation, one soon realizes a certain regularity in the flow, and some uniformity in the articulation. There are also idiosyncrasies, especially in the dynamics, such as “spontaneous” crescendi on crotchets, or overblown phrase endings. Overall, the interpretation does not touch nearly as much as Queyras’.

Total Duration: 18’14”

Rating: 3.5 / 4 / 3.5 / 3 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 = 3.50

Comment: Technically superb. However, if you are looking for an excellent performance on a modern instrument, then Jean-Guihen Queyras is the far better choice.

J.S. Bach, Suites or Cello Solo — David Watkin, 2013 (CD cover)

David Watkin, 2013

Artist: David Watkin (*1965)
Instrument: Francesco Rugeri (c.1628 – 1698), Cremona, c.1670; gut strings and baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’15”)

At almost identical timing / tempo as Jean-Guihen Queyras, this Prélude sounds entirely different—and not (just) because of the lower pitch, gut strings and baroque bow. The latter of course create a more character- and colorful soundscape, the lower pitch darkens the sound. What is much more obvious is the stronger differentiation in articulation (e.g., the contrast between the slurred notes and the light articulation in the remainder of the motifs). The détaché semiquavers vary between a light and percussive (notes with a “bite”) and nearly spiccato articulation. The dynamics are highly differentiated, too—not just across a phrase, but also within motifs, and from one motif to the next.

The part following the fermata (bar #22) feels like a combination of free fantasy and cadenza (especially from the descending scales in bar #29 onwards). It does not claim to be virtuosic, though—it’s just a very rich, lively, and diverse monologue with lots of “inner life”.

II. Allemande (4’40”)

The pace is very similar to Sergey Malov‘s, and of course, David Watkin’s interpretation exhibits pronounced rhythmic / agogic swaying, too. Even the “resting points” at the intersection between phrases are similar in length. However, here, these intersections do not disrupt the musical flow. Rather, David Watkin manages to maintain tension and flow, such that the interpretation feels neither short-breathed, nor breathless. And the continuous build-up and release of tension those broach arches: beautiful, masterful!

The other thing that I noted: in the second part, some phrases end in large, descending intervals. In most interpretations, these feel prominent and affirmative, like “sitting down”. Here, however, the artist takes back the volume to pp or less, which feels like retracting into intimacy, introspection. This also applies to the very last notes—marvelous! And: unlike many others, David Watkin does not need to resort to personalize the interpretation by overloading it with numerous extra ornaments. Bach’s music speaks for itself. The artist sees no need to “trump up”—he rather puts himself behind (or into the service of) the music.

III. Courante (2’42”)

David Watkin’s timing is almost identical to that of Anner Bylsma’s 1992 recording. Yet, there are major differences in their respective approaches: David Watkin is far more active, alert, determined. His interpretation feels faster, and he even intensifies his playing around climaxes. And, as with Anner Bylsma, his pace is more fluid around climaxes. A truly excellent performance, expressive (occasionally almost eruptive in the dynamics!), full of agogics, dance swaying, Klangrede. And, compared to Bylsma, David Watkin certainly profits from a far better recording setup. Fascinating!

IV. Sarabande (2’51”)

I’m listening to this after Jaap ter Linden, which features virtually identical timing. In terms of sonority, the two recordings may be comparable—but that’s where the similarities end. Watkin’s opening chords may (appropriately) be somewhat lyrical. Thereafter, though, every motif, every phrase is filled with agogics / swaying, momentum, internal tension: a solemn dance, no doubt! The tension carries through the entire parts—and yet leaves room to breathe. It all feels so natural! I really like this interpretation!

Watkin’s treatment of trills deserves a short note. The trills in bars #2 & #4 begin on the main note (following the convention, as the preceding note is the trill’s auxiliary note). Watkin omits the trills in bars #5 & #6 entirely, while in the second part, the trills in bars #10 & #11 start on the auxiliary note (against the loose convention). No ornaments are added, neither in the first passes, nor in the repeats. However, there is no convention that would mandate using extra ornaments. Hence, no objections, this does not stop me from liking the interpretation.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’48”)

Menuet I

Unlike Pieter Wispelwey’s interpretations (1998, 2012), David Watkin’s focus isn’t so much on “local expression and drama”. Rather, he focuses on the dance swaying (bars and phrases), while at the same time carefully shaping dynamic (and swaying!) arches across the two halves. I have rarely heard such diligently formed, big / long (and harmonious) phrases! Particularly, how the piece ends by moving into pp, i.e., into the distance. Beautiful!

Menuet II

Not just the phrases themselves are important here, but just as much the transitions—including the one between the two Menuets. David Watkin inserted a few, ascending transition notes between the two movements: these not only soften the modulation to D minor, but they also form a harmonious, gentle transition from the sotto voce ending of Menuet I.

The second Menuet is distinctly slower than the first one—gentler, softer, more intimate. And here, the agogic and dynamic swaying, the harmonious breathing (typically in entire bars) is even more pronounced. Beautiful again!

As one of only three artists here (next to Myriam Rignol on the viola da gamba, and to Petr Skalka), David Watkin performs both repeats also in the da capo instance of Menuet I.

VII. Gigue (1’43”)

In a tempo / a timing that is identical to that of Thomas Demenga, David Watkin offers a completely different interpretation. Here, most quaver triplets are slurred. Consequently, the sonority is far less austere, rough. One might say that the approach is a bit more conventional, even though, of course, the artist uses light articulation, and the sound is clearly showing the effect of gut strings and a baroque bow. More melodious than Demenga’s recording, but also less fun, less rustic (less exciting?), and not featuring extra ornaments.

Total Duration: 17’59”

Rating: 4.5 / 5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 4.5 = 4.71

Comment: A highly recommended HIP performance. On a par with Thomas Demenga in general, though less adventurous…

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Thomas Demenga, 2014 (CD cover)
Thomas Demenga (© Ismael Lorenzo)

Thomas Demenga, 2014

Artist: Thomas Demenga (*1954, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Carlo Giuseppe Testore (1660 – 1716) & family, Milano, 18th century; gut strings and baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 392 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’18”)

In all motifs starting with three ascending semiquavers (like in bars #1 – #6), Thomas Demenga puts a distinct emphasis on the first / lowest note, slightly extending it. He sticks to (presumably) Bach’s slurs, however, in those initial bars, the slurs are secondary: the key impression lays in the steady heartbeat of the bass notes, and in the swaying motion of the subsequent notes in the half-bar motif: beautiful breathing! With the swaying in every motif, there is no need for pronounced echo dynamics in repeated motifs (which Bach might have noted in the score). In the segments with different melodic structure (“non-thematic”, so to say), the artist forms long, harmonious arches.

The part after the fermata (bar #22) does not initially feel like a cadenza—rather like a marvelous, free fantasy, swaying even more strongly. Fittingly, Thomas Demenga adds a little turn on the first c♯’ in bar #27—indicating a kind of first climax. The descending scales in bars #29/30 act as a bridge, a transition into the “real cadenza“, with its accelerating semiquaver figures that culminate in the final climax in bar #39. The artist keeps the articulation light (as throughout the Prélude), and the final climax itself is already backing out: Thomas Demenga resists the temptation to apply bow pressure and/or building up extra volume, ending (almost) in transfiguration.

II. Allemande (4’06”)

In my listening sequence from slow to fast, after Pierre Fournier, we are now rapidly moving into the “fast” performances. The tempo difference between Fournier and Thomas Demenga may not be all that dramatic—however, what a contrast! The step down in pitch by a full tone (from a’ = 440 Hz to a’ = 392 Hz) aside, the two interpretations could not be any more different! Where Fournier offers “pure esthetics” in tone, sonority, vibrato, and a continuous melodic stream in harmonious dynamic waves.

Thomas Demenga contrasts this with light, rich and detailed, “speaking” articulation, with swaying agogics and dynamics—Klangrede at its best, down to the smallest of motifs. His swaying is in entire bars, so despite the fluid pace, the performance still feels calm (yet full of life). Simply beautiful!

And the ornamentation! Already in the first passes, Thomas Demenga inconspicuously adds one or the other small ornament. However, in the repeats, he surpasses anything that I have ever heard. Here, his playing is sparkling, bubbling from little trills, turns, occasional jeu inégal, extra transition notes and passages. Enriching, entertaining, highly personal—yet still entirely within the baroque language. Some may find this “too much”—however, as the first passes present the text largely unaltered, I don’t think criticism is justified—I like it!

III. Courante (2’23”)

With the most recent interpretation, by Bruno Philippe, Thomas Demenga not only shares the same fluid pace, but also the lightness in articulation (Demenga’s is the lightest of all)—and the pleasure, the fun and fantasy in the extra ornamentation in repeats (Demenga does even more than Philippe). A whirling dance, indeed, natural, and harmonious in phrasing and swaying. A masterful interpretation—one of the very best in this movement. Too playful??? No, certainly not!!!

IV. Sarabande (2’26”)

Thomas Demenga’s Sarabande is about as much swaying as Anner Bylsma’s 1992 performance, with which it shares the almost identical timing, the fluid overall tempo. However, the two approaches are still vastly different. In the first passes, Demenga closely follows the notation, not just in bar #4, but also in all the slurs. The one (perfectly acceptable) exception is in the descending semiquaver pairs (thirds) in bars #11 and #12, which the artist expands into triplets.

Then, there’s the remarkable repeats! One could say that there is more focus on melodic components in motifs, and the sound feels more “legato“. The latter is not purely because of different articulation, though. Rather, as in the other movements, Thomas Demenga incorporates a fascinating, inventive, rich, and personal, and yet perfectly well-adapted set of ornaments: fun, playfulness, and utmost pleasure!!!

In general, Thomas Demenga’s articulation is much shorter / accented, not focusing as much on singing / cantilenas. One might perhaps even call it “percussive” because of the prominent, beautiful, and sonorous chords. And the dance swaying is more flexible, not as regular and persistent as Anner Bylsma’s in 1992.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’19”)

Menuet I

Mentally, I’m juxtaposing this to Pieter Wispelwey’s recordings (1998, 2012)—because I feel that these artists perform “in the same league”. That of course does not imply that the two artists take the same approach here.

Indeed, where Wispelwey devotes attention, applies tension to every single, small motif, in Thomas Demenga’s interpretation, every phrase is telling a story. Not full of tension, but full of life! Some figures are almost casual (e.g., the ascending G major chord at the very beginning and in bar #5). However, this is not a performance that one should dissect with a magnifying glass.

Rather, one should listen to the narration. And that narration appears to have a life of its own. No two motifs are mere copies / echoes (even if in the score they look almost identical), but Thomas Demenga differentiates them all, dynamically, in agogics, and/or in articulation. With this, the artist unfolds true richness—without resorting to ornamentation! In fact, the only extra ornament is a turn on the last note in bar #23—in the repeat and in the da capo instance. An exemplary interpretation in its own way.

Menuet II

Technically, the pace is almost the same as in Menuet I. Also, the internal richness in expression, the differentiation is similar. However, the atmosphere and the means are different. The Menuet II is more restrained, especially in dynamics, more introverted. Thomas Demenga compensates this with a broad variety of ornaments (all well-fitting, of course), especially in the repeats. Needless to say, that the artist devotes the same amount of attention and detail to articulation, agogics and dynamics—just in a different context.

VII. Gigue (1’38”)

With David Watkin, Thomas Demenga shares an almost identical timing / tempo. Naturally, though, their interpretations are rather different. Demenga uses much fewer slurs than the standard editions (in fact, Anna Magdalena Bach’s slur placement is particularly marginal in this movement). With this, staccato articulation dominates, leading to some austerity / roughness in the sonority. However, that doesn’t prevent the interpretation to feel joy- and playful. This also holds true for the repeats, though these are enriched with ornaments: the upbeat and the final four bars in repeat 1, bars #25 – #27 in the second repeat. This leads up to a rustic, tomboyish ending: fun for sure—a last dance of sorts?

Total Duration: 16’11”

Rating: 5 / 4.5 / 5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 = 4.71

Comment: Thomas Demenga’s interpretation is excellent, his approach highly personal, especially in the ornamented repeats. Interesting, highly musical, playful, fun. Strongly recommended!

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Marianne Dumas, 2016 (CD cover)
Marianne Dumas (source: www.mariannedumas.com)

Marianne Dumas, 2016

Artist: Marianne Dumas
Instrument: Baroque cello by Daniel Josua König (*1980), Leipzig, Germany; gut strings and baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

This is my first encounter with Marianne Dumas’ “inverse” (rediscovered, baroque) bowing technique. According to the artist’s own research, this was at least one technique used in baroque times (in specific places). For the artist, this technique (swapping the direction of up- and downstrokes) is a fundamental change—but what’s in it for the listener?

For the casual listener, the differences to a regular performance (using the same instrument and bow) may be hardly noticeable. It’s still the same music, of course. Careful inspection, though, reveals subtle, but relevant changes!

I. Prélude (3’10”)

I’m listening to this after the slowest performance, by Jaap ter Linden. Marianne Dumas is only marginally faster, but the difference is obvious. Traditional performances focus on the three slurred semiquavers at the beginning of each motif, leaving the remaining semiquavers as continuation / comment / illustration.

Here, however, the slurred notes are the opening, the introduction (I’m tempted to say “upbeat”), and the subsequent notes are now much more in the focus. Maybe even more than the slurred ones! They certainly receive at least the same amount of care and attention. The net effect is that albeit almost as slow as Jaap ter Linden’s, the musical flow is far less uniform, rather full of life and detail. Jaap ter Linden may use more agogics within larger phrases—here, however, life (agogics, Klangrede) “happens” within every single motif. Consequently, one rarely ever perceives this performance as (relatively) slow.

Additional observations: at the fermata in bar #22, as well as on the first note (quaver) in bar #29, Marianne Dumas deliberately halts the flow, giving it a fresh start after a short pause.

II. Allemande (4’18”)

The timing (hence the overall tempo) is identical to Emmanuelle Bertrand‘s, the pace feels fluid, but not exceedingly fast, and there is no “babbling along” in the semiquavers. Rather, there is a kind of calm, unexcited, meandering flow. What may contribute to this is, that Marianne Dumas tends to use simple ornaments: where others use short trills or inverted mordents, Dumas often just does a simple acciaccatura. With the inverted bowing, the articulation also feels smoother, more flowing / fluent. This shifts the focus from articulation towards dynamic differentiation, expression through melodic motifs (and inconspicuous agogic swaying). In sum, the articulation is less percussive (no staccato, certainly no spiccato), occasionally, emphasis is achieved through broad tenuto (quavers, particularly).

III. Courante (2’54”)

Also here, one can clearly sense the effect of the “inverse” bowing. In the first 7–8 bars it’s primarily through the softer, less percussive articulation in the quavers—something one rapidly gets used to. The quavers in bar #9, though, feel even softer, rather too soft, given that (in my opinion) they are a moment of jubilation.

In bars #14 / #15, however, the three slurred semiquavers are now upstrokes, the last semiquaver in each group is a downstroke, where the bow must travel three times faster. With conventional bowing, the single note is an upstroke, where it is easy to make a quick, but large movement for the next motif. The “inverted” bowing apparently (naturally, I should say) makes it harder to return the bow quickly without also being louder. The net effect here is that in these bars, the last semiquavers are too strong, causing these notes to feel like syncopes. Slightly irritating—or, at least, rather unusual. The same happens towards the end of the movement, where (in bar #38) also the return to the “straight” rhythm appears tricky.

IV. Sarabande (2’49”)

Here, some effects of the “inverted bowing” are obvious. Firstly: the two opening chords would usually be a down- and an upstroke—here presumably an up- and a downstroke. However, Marianne Dumas apparently wanted to “emulate” the effect of two successive (emphatic) upstrokes without lifting the bow off the strings. Given the short length of the baroque bow, she must split the b in the first chord into two notes to “recover bow space” for the second chord. To me, this doesn’t sound fully convincing. The other observation may not entirely be due to the “inverted” bowing: quavers and longer notes have a conspicuous tendency towards swelling or “belly dynamics”. Not ideal, I think.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’35”)

Menuet I

Another example showing the effect of the “inverted bowing”—maybe. Where in most interpretations (standard bowing) the first three notes appear as powerful, almost percussive (ascending) figure, an opening signal, here, the same notes sound more like a gentle arpeggio—”weaker”. The entire movement sounds more mellow, somewhat lacking rhythmic contours. That observation culminates in some of the semiquaver figures in the second part, which oddly feel somewhat stodgy. As that’s a matter of the left hand, this can’t be a consequence of the inverted bowing, or can it?

The gist here is: is this to prove that inverted bowing has an audible effect on the outcome? Or shouldn’t the recording rather try proving that inverted bowing can produce equally valid (albeit different), if not superior results? My conclusion from this movement: Bach’s Menuet is written for regular bowing, and therefore I doubt that this solution is authentic for these Suites.

Menuet II

Here, the pace is virtually identical to the first Menuet (a tad slower, actually)—and the interpretation also shares the latter’s weaknesses. I again feel a deficit in contours in rhythm and articulation, and the “slow acciaccatura” on the half-note in bar #8 contributes to this impression.

VII. Gigue (1’32”)

This final movement leaves me puzzled. I could repeat what I stated above, for Menuet I: lacking rhythmic contours, mellow articulation, etc.—not to the advantage of the music. Primarily, though, I think that the tempo is just too fast for the artist’s chosen technique. Not only is the articulation very mellow, even fluffy, but so many figures are simply ill-defined. For example: many of the motifs with semiquavers can hardly be recognized as such. Some degenerate to triplets, others have notes “swallowed”, feel plain sloppy, superficial. This equally applies to some of the staccato figures. Too bad for an interpretation that might otherwise have momentum and a lively flow.

Total Duration: 18’19”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 3.5 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 3 = 3.36

Comment: Marianne Dumas presents interesting results of her research into baroque playing techniques. Sadly, this recording is not a convincing argument in favor of the concept of “inverted bowing”. Disappointingly, it does not live up to the promise that the CD cover appears to make.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Kim Kashkashian, Viola, 2017 (CD cover)
Kim Kashkashian (© Steve Riskind)

Kim Kashkashian, 2017 — Viola

Artist: Kim Kashkashian (*1952, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Viola by Stefan-Peter Greiner (*1966), Bonn / London / Zürich
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

Sonority: Compared to the cello, the pitch of the viola is higher by a full octave. This leads to a noticeable shift in the relative weights between descant (d’, a’ strings) and low (c, g) strings. Despite this, it takes amazingly little for the listener to adapt to the sound of the viola. As the viola is closer to the human voice than the cello, I sense an immediate affinity towards the sound of that instrument. Yes, the cello tone is warmer, fuller, and as such more impressive… but still! I find the transition from cello to viola more straightforward than that from the violin to the viola. There, the pitch shift is a fifth—see my comparison of recordings of Bach’s “Sei Solo”, BWV 1001 – 1006.

I. Prélude (2’19”)

Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy is very unreliable and inconsequent in the slurs. Indeed, the slurs in the first bar appear to apply to semiquavers #3 and #4. In the second bar, they appear to apply to semiquavers #2 and #3. Bar #3 lacks a slur in the first motif, and afterwards, they mostly seem to be over (the first) three semiquavers.

The consensus for the first part of the Prélude appears to be, to slur the first three semiquavers in every half-bar motif. Kim Kashkashian deviates from this: except for bar #7, she plays a slur over semiquavers #3 and #4 in every motif, all other notes are played staccato or spiccato. This adds a fundamental change in character. And it is questionable: the chances are slim that the available sources and the general consensus / performance practice are all wrong. Interestingly, after the fermata in bar #22 and up to the climax in bar #39, the artist switches to broad tenuto articulation, while again deviating from everybody else in the slurring.

An interesting approach. However, I’m puzzled, and I think this leaves some serious questions: is this perhaps just to be different from everybody else? Isn’t the viola by itself enough of a differentiator already?

II. Allemande (4’39”)

I do like the sonority, the articulation, and much of the dynamics, such as the idea of starting the first repeat p. There are, however, occasional motifs that stand out, get highlighted for no obvious reason. There is agogic swaying, though generally following the long phrases, not the full- or half-bar motifs: the underlying alla breve meter is often obscured. I do like the overall flow, however. The one objection I have is, that Kim Kashkashian is often (particularly in repeats) overloading the melody line with extra ornaments, to a point where it affects the melodic / rhythmic structure of the composition. Moreover, some of the ornaments are repetitive, i.e., they become predictable. Especially unusual ones, such as third intervals that are filled and altered into semiquaver triplets.

III. Courante (2’56”)

I like Kim Kashkashian’s basic approach (basic pace / tempo, articulation, etc.). Yet, I do have a few objections. For one, there are some subtle inconsistencies in the tempo (e.g., passages that are faster for no obvious reason). Also, especially in the second part, there are irregularities in the musical flow, like minute “ruptures” that prevent the impression of a continuous flow, as one might expect for a “dance movement”. No, I’m not expecting clockwork-like continuity and uniformity: rhythmic / agogic swaying is a must, I believe—but so is continuity in flow and tension. One might conclude that Bach’s Courante is trickier than it seems—or are there specific in playing this on a viola?

The other reservation I have is with the articulation. Particularly in the second part, I feel some arbitrariness in how the articulation of the four opening quavers in the main motif changes between staccato, broad tenuto, sometimes (partly) even legato. At the very least, that’s puzzling. The sources for this movement may be inconsistent / vague. However, shouldn’t interpretations follow a certain logic, a recognizable concept?

IV. Sarabande (2’34”)

In my listening sequence for this movement, this is #18 out of 24 recordings. It is the first one that is clearly faster (not dramatically, though) than the average. Kim Kashkashian considered the phrasing. At this more fluid pace, longer phrases not only are easier to form, but they make sense. Indeed, this is the first of the performances that clearly splits each of the two parts into two periods of four bars each. Within these periods, one can sense a sub-splitting into 2 + 2 + 4 x (1) shorter phrases. The “4 x (1)” phrases aren’t delimited by bar lines but follow the melodic phrases.

I like the singing tone, the sonority of the viola, and I also like Kim Kahkashian’s ornamentation. Most extra ornaments are in the repeats. There is the extra chord on the trill in bar #4 (which several others do as well)—it makes sense here, at the closure of the first 4-bar period. My main quibble is that not all connections between phrases are equally harmonious—and with that, there isn’t a persistent feeling of “dance swaying”.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’28”)

Menuet I

I’m listening to this after Marianne Dumas’ cello interpretation with “inverted bowing”. The tempo is virtually identical. However, even though the viola does not offer the same “bite” as the cello with standard / regular bowing, I’m happy to note that we are back on an interpretation with contours in rhythm and articulation. Even though the interpretation doesn’t offer pronounced dance swaying, it is very much alive, and the extra, fitting ornaments in the repeats contribute to this impression. Clarity in articulation, sonority, and intonation.

Menuet II

The same applies to the second Menuet. I particularly like the clear tonal distinction the last quavers in bars #3 (E♮) and #7 (E♭). Also here, the extra ornaments in the repeats are fitting very well.

VII. Gigue (1’59”)

The second slowest of the interpretations—however, notably faster than Pierre Fournier, and unlike the latter, the artist is playing two beats per bar, discharging each quaver triplet. With the piece being dominated by quaver figures, the tempo feels fluid. The viola—in comparison to the cello—certainly also contributes to the impression of a light, fluid interpretation. Kim Kashkashian articulates carefully and clearly, structuring the phrases with staccato notes. She uses agogics and dynamics to shape longer phrases, and the repeats are enriched with a set of excellent and well-fitting ornaments. A nice experience!

Total Duration: 18’06”

Rating: 3.5 / 3.5 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 3.71

Comment: If you dislike the occasional “grumbling” of the low cello strings, then this is a very viable alternative. One advantage of the viola is that in comparison to the cello it offers better tonal definition and clarity on the low strings.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Sergey Malov, Violoncello da spalla, 2018 (CD cover)

Sergey Malov, 2018 — Violoncello da spalla

Artist: Sergey Malov (*1983, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Violoncello da spalla by Dmitry Badiarov (*1969), Den Haag, The Netherlands; baroque bow
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

With two exceptions (first repeats in Sarabande and Menuet I, see below), Sergey Malov leaves out all repeats.

This is an interesting approach. It certainly has its merits for Suite No.6, which specifically asks for a (smaller) 5-string instrument. However, I have serious doubts whether Bach really thought of a small 5-string instrument as an option for the Suites No.1 – 5.

First, on the sonority: the sound is somewhat bulbous, dark, full, but also dull in the higher registers. This makes me suspect that the sound engineer tried making the instrument sound extra deep and full. One should keep in mind that the instrument is distinctly smaller than a regular cello, hence one would expect a brighter, lighter sonority. It’s the special strings which only make strong bass sonority possible. The instrument on the CD cover appears to have baroque proportions (length and possibly steepness of the finger board), the bow is “proper baroque”. However, the strings certainly aren’t authentic…

I. Prélude (2’24”)

Malov carefully articulates (& slightly stretches) the first note in every half-bar motif, accelerating within the three slurred semiquavers, putting a secondary accent on the third note. He truthfully follows the slurring in the standard edition, the détaché notes sound light, articulate, almost spiccato. For the individual motif, the articulation is OK. However, there is little variation. After the stretched slurred notes, the subsequent five détaché semiquavers appear to try catching up—in every motif. In the long run, this creates a certain monotony, lacking variation, “life”, flexibility. I think that the artist’s intent is a bit too obvious.

All the notes are there—there is just one exception: Sergey Malov alters the last two semiquavers in a way that is very clearly not authentic (even just the punctuation), hardly fits into the composition. Even more so: the curly Rococo-ornament on the last chord is neither necessary, nor does it fit into the style of this music.

II. Allemande (2’21”)

Sergey Malov applies rather pronounced agogics—swaying across every phrase. That works nicely within connected phrases, such as bars #1 – #4. Often, though, where the intersection between shorter phrases is a punctuated quaver (a chord or a note on the C or G string), that intersection feels like a little resting point, at which the flow stops, the tension is released until the next phrase begins. This makes the performance feel a bit “short-breathed”.

The artist adds a few extra ornaments. Most of these feel “natural” and occur in expected moments. Two of them (the descending scale in bar #29, and the acciaccatura on the punctuated quaver in bar #5) are clearly personal choices. However, they are not nearly as bizarre as the ending of the Prélude. Adding extra ornaments is nothing extraordinary these days—it seems desirable, sometimes even necessary, likely expected by the composer. In cases where ornaments are obscuring the composer’s melody line, though, most artists decide to do them in repeats only, such that listeners get a chance to hear the composer’s original. This is just one more reason to do the repeats in baroque music. A pity that Sergey Malov decided to omit all repeats.

III. Courante (1’09”)

The fastest performance of all—too pushed, indeed. It’s no longer playful, with passages that appear pushed / hurried, and often, the agogics are exaggerated, to the point where the overall flow is affected. All that said: the Courante clearly is Malov’s best movement so far: I like the articulation, the agility, the sonority. Too bad it ends after a little over a minute (without the repeats).

IV. Sarabande (1’42”)

Sergey Malov’s pace is almost as fluid as Anner Bylsma in 1979. Is this (in parts) a consequence of the da spalla configuration, i.e., the violin-like “bow mechanics”? I like the pronouncedly swaying agogics. One could call this dance swaying (somewhat obscured through ornaments already in the first pass). However, here, I associate this hardly with a typical Sarabande, maybe also due to the rather conspicuous and frequent jeu inégal? A rare exception in this recording: the artist does the first repeat—an opportunity to present a rich set of personal (and inventive) extra ornaments. It’s one of just two repeats in Sergey Malov’s performance of the G major Suite. The second repeat is omitted, but the first pass already features a set of extra ornaments. I see the absence of the unaltered text as an unfortunate consequence of Malov’s “compact” recording.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (1’38”)

One of only two repeats in Sergey Malov’s performance of Suite No.1 is with the first part of the Menuet I.

Menuet I

Why, why so fast? This has nothing to do with a Menuet—it is rather a Courante, or maybe a Gigue (or 100 years later a fast Waltz!). The light, percussive and detailed articulation is no substitute for the missing Menuet character. If it wasn’t labeled Menuet, this would be a very nice little Scherzo. With this fast pace, I’m not surprised that not even in the one of very few repeats there are extra ornaments.

Menuet II

Same here (even a tad faster). The one difference is that here, even though the artist performs no repeats, there are numerous nice, “curly” ornaments (trills, mostly). And Sergey Malov does add a few ornaments to the da capo instance of Menuet I. It’s all fun, but not necessarily the composer’s intent.

VII. Gigue (0’54”)

Initially a well-articulated, vivid / lively performance. However, it only takes a few bars for the interpretation to overflow from countless ornaments—not just trills, but runs and other fioriture, extra drones over multiple bars. That’s all fun and interesting. However, if an artist wants to indulge in such an abundance of ornaments, I expect this to happen (mostly) in repeats only. If the recording is labeled “Bach”, then I’d expect the artist to honor / respect the composer by juxtaposing the original and the artist’s personal view. Sergey Malov’s approach of omitting the repeats precludes this.

Total Duration: 10’08”

Rating: 3 / 3.5 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 3.79

Comment: An interesting recording in a (probably) hypothetical setting, with one major setback: too bad Sergey Malov omits all (but two) repeats. This essentially disqualifies his recording vis-à-vis all others. Being able to squeeze all 6 Suites onto a single CD is not a performance quality or an achievement to be proud of—certainly not if it is at the expense of most repeats!

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Emmanuelle Bertrand, 2019 (CD cover)
Emmanuelle Bertrand (source: www.musicalta.com)

Emmanuelle Bertrand, 2019

Artist: Emmanuelle Bertrand (*1973)
Instrument: Carlo Annibale Tononi (1675 – 1730), Venice, early 18th century; gut strings and baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’29”)

A well-balanced approach (tempo-wise it is right on the average) that gives precedence neither to the slurred semiquavers, nor to the following, détaché notes. The articulation is gentle, harmonious, and truthful to the notation. Rather than focusing on Klangrede within the individual motifs, Emmanuelle Bertrand forms impressive, long phrases, even across the entire movement. The artist avoids local dynamic contrasts (echo effects with repeated motifs, etc.)—the overall flow, the big arches prevail. Beautifully harmonious, overall—though some may miss local, dramatic expression?

My main quibble is with the church acoustics and its excessive reverberation. This offers a warm, shrouding envelope. However, in my opinion, it also unnecessarily blurs the listener’s impression.

II. Allemande (4’18”)

In my listening sequence (from slow to faster), this is #16 out of 24. The tempo is only slightly above average. Yet, this is the first interpretation that feels “rather (too?) fluid”, to the point where sometimes the semiquavers tend to “babble along”, leaving limited room for Klangrede (local, at the level of motifs). Was the artist trying to beat / work against the reverberation? Yes, there are agogics, there is swaying—though governed by the phrasing arches, but primarily trying to produce an alla breve dance swaying.

I also note the rather impulsive dynamics, with slightly exaggerated, occasionally somewhat bulky (& belly) accents. Overall: too busy, too much unrest for an Allemande?

III. Courante (2’35”)

I like the basic approach (tempo, phrasing, flow). However, the pace is maybe a little fast: there are some subtle rhythmic inaccuracies, occasional superficialities in the articulation in semiquaver figures. Also, some of the descending quaver figures seem a tad vague / lacking firmness and definition. Finally—and this is a subtle observation—there is an occasional tendency to lose momentum at the intersection between motifs / phrases.

IV. Sarabande (3’05”)

Beautiful tone & sonority, beautiful articulation—and yet, the interpretation leaves me with some slight reservations. The tempo is at or below the bottom of the acceptable range for a Sarabande—at least for a recent, historically informed interpretation (i.e., ignoring traditional, romantic approaches, such as Pierre Fournier or Mstislav Rostropovich). Emmanuelle Bertrand remains calm, yet still manages to make the music sway, like in a (very) slow dance. However, the interpretation appears fragile (by intent, presumably), to the point where at the intersection between phrases repeatedly there is an imminent danger of losing the tension.

However, at the level of motifs, one can sense a danger of fragmentation. That’s not so much from gaps between phrases, but from noticeable variations in the tension. For example, in the first part, the “weak” bars #3/4, as well as #7/8 appear lighter than the “strong” bars #1/2, as well as #5/6. That may be OK, but at the same time these lighter bars also lack some internal / rhythmic tension. This might be the artist’s intent—however, I think that for the listener, the effect should be more subtle, i.e., inconspicuous / subconscious.

Emmanuelle Bertrand adds a few extra ornaments, particularly in repeats. Interestingly, she adopts Paolo Pandolfo‘s harmonization of the trill in bar #4.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’00”)

Menuet I

For Menuet I, the duration is the same as with Jean-Guihen Queyras. The interpretation is vivid, lively—and rather different from Queyras’. It didn’t occur to me in the other interpretations—but here, I realized that there are a lot of slurred quaver pairs, which (as a structure element) seem rather (too) prominent. Two more remarks: for one, the performance appears somewhat (overly) driven, busy—there isn’t enough time to breathe between the phrases. And then, among the movements in this suite, this one is the most affected by the reverberation in the church acoustics. This may contribute to the “busy” impression.

Menuet II

The last statement also applies to the second Menuet—even though this is calmer in its pace, more restrained, reflective. One quibble also here: ascending scales (fioriture) at the opening of a new motif can be a nice extra ornament. However, they are rather conspicuous and should be used sparingly (or in a rich mix of other ornaments). Emmanuelle Bertrand uses them in pairs—twice, and essentially as the only extra embellishments. In the first repeat, at the beginning, and between bars #4 and #5, and in the second repeat, in the first part of bars #9 and #11. To me, already the second instance felt like “too much”, i.e., too much of a “déjà vu“.

VII. Gigue (1’46”)

An interesting, fascinating performance, full of drive and momentum, well-articulated, with focus on flow, with an irresistible pull forward, and with excellent sonority! The best movement in this interpretation—my only quibble being that in the second half, the pull forward is in danger of getting out of control.

Total Duration: 17’13”

Rating: 4 / 3.5 / 3 / 4 / 3.5 / 3 / 4.5 = 3.64

Comment: Vivid, lively, certainly fulfills the requirements for “historically informed”. Maybe not the top of its class, and not as consistent as others, but still…

J.S. Bach, Suites or Cello Solo — Juris Teichmanis, 2019 (CD cover)

Juris Teichmanis, 2019

Artist: Juris Teichmanis (*1966)
Instrument: Anonymous, 18th century; gut strings and baroque bow
Pitch: a’ = 400 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’44”)

Hmmm … truthful to the score (slurs), there’s agogics / Klangrede, broad dynamic arches (not extreme in the dynamic span, though). Beyond any doubt, the artist sees this as an authentic, historically informed performance. The use of a baroque bow and gut strings is most evident.

However, does that really imply such an austere sonority? Maybe the microphones were very close to the instrument? Focusing on the (inherent) noise from the interaction of a baroque bow with gut strings doesn’t make a performance “authentic”. Typically, such noise doesn’t project well, and in a typical (even small room) recital situation, listeners will never hear as much of the noise (relative to the “proper tones”) as the artist. It’s not that I expect a “perfect” (and necessarily neutral, aseptic) recording—but to me, this one is “too authentic”.

A last point: at the fermata on the dominant d’ in bar #22, Juris Teichmanis inserts a very short, descending cadenza. I like the idea, but having the last tone jump down to C (prolonging the fermata) sounds fairly unusual, to say the least. The continuation is an ascending scale starting at A.

II. Allemande (4’49”)

Also here, the artist seems to abhor pure sound esthetics, to the point where tones (especially on the d and a are often sounding rather “raw”, whirring. Sonority aside: Juris Teichmanis is thinking in phrases more than in regular alla breve beats or bar lines. Even more (too much) focus appears to be on the continuity of the musical flow. Not that there aren’t any agogics—the flow is not monotonous. However, to me, there is too little “room to breathe” between phrases, which cases the sensation of latent restlessness, maybe to look back at the past phrase, or the like. And within the musical “language”, the phrases, there should perhaps be more focus on “words”, rather than on meticulously reproducing the notation (slurs vs. détaché).

III. Courante (2’38”)

It seems to me that the Courante profits from Juris Teichmanis’ occasionally noisy articulation, the rough staccati. The sound of the interaction between the baroque bow and the gut strings adds extra life and rhythmic contours to this movement. The interpretation certainly is anything but boring!

IV. Sarabande (2’57”)

If we ignore the sound of the interaction of the baroque bow with the gut strings, the one “prominent HIP feature” in this interpretation is the decidedly short, very first chord. Thereafter, there are few instances of light (non-tenuto, non-legato) articulation. Apart from that, Juris Teichmanis’ approach is relatively close to a standard, modern interpretation, including a moderate vibrato on long notes. The agogic swaying is limited, and just like with Benedict Kloeckner, the focus is on the big phrases and dynamic arches, not on Klangrede at the level of motifs.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’22”)

Menuet I

Swaying agogics. At the beginning of every 8-bar phrase, the tempo is fluid, but OK—strangely, in each of these periods, the artist is accelerating towards the center, then returning to the original pace. This introduces unrest, makes the movement feel somewhat pushed, “too busy”.

Menuet II

The second Menuet is much calmer, slower, more of a calm flow—to the point where there is little dance feeling, if any. Gentle articulation—broad tenuto in intense passages. No extra ornaments anywhere.

VII. Gigue (1’52”)

I mentioned the rough, at times harsh sonority above—here, it is present primarily in the staccato. Beyond that, I find the intonation marginal in some details (superficialities short, individual notes). Finally, the conversion of the first part of bar #33 into a quintuplet feels sloppy at best.

Total Duration: 18’23”

Rating: 3.5 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 3.5 / 4 / 3 = 3.57

Comment: Historically informed, sure—but not really convincing throughout.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Benedict Kloeckner, 2020 (CD cover)
Benedict Kloeckner (source: www.benedictkloeckner.de)

Benedict Kloeckner, 2020

Artist: Benedict Kloeckner (*1989, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Francesco Rugeri (c.1628 – 1698), Cremona, c.1690
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’06”)

I would chiefly characterize this as an excellent modern interpretation. Juxtaposed to Isang Enders‘ recording, with which it shares the fast pace, Benedict Kloeckner’s seems far more appealing. It is free of mannerisms, light in the articulation, differentiated and vivid in dynamics. Technically flawless, but diligent in phrasing (dynamics, agogics). As stated: a very good interpretation, even though it lacks the Klangrede at the level of motifs, and it also lacks a compelling overall architectural concept (e.g., cadenza feeling)—to me, it simply can’t compete with the richness of top, historically informed performances. And: relative to those, even just the few instances of prominent vibrato appear unnecessary, without benefit.

II. Allemande (3’21”)

Already Pablo Casals was clearly above the average pace. With Benedict Kloeckner, though, we enter a group of three interpretations (along with Steven Isserlis and Mstislav Rostropovich) that distance themselves from all others in terms of tempo. Here, the rhythmic base is defiinitely in entire bars. If we abandon the idea of an alla breve (2/2) meter, we can indeed sense a pronounced “dance swaying” in full bars. However, this no longer is a calm Allemande, given the busy flow of semiquavers, which leaves the impression of a certain unrest (particularly because détaché articulation dominates).

Benedict Kloeckner articulates carefully, his technique is flawless. He does not create the impression of polished perfection, though, the tone is characterful and well-defined. Finally: with the fast pace, it is easier for the listener to capture the movement in its entirety.

III. Courante (2’31”)

Fluid in general (same timing as Pablo Casals), especially at the beginning, but then tends to lose a tiny bit of momentum around climaxes, or at intersections between phrases. Overall, there is a slight lack of tempo consistency. And the articulation occasionally “smells a tad didactic”.

IV. Sarabande (2’58”)

Just a tad faster than Pieter Wispelwey’s 1998 recording—yet completely different: mostly tenuto, if not quasi-legato articulation, broad, swaying (but not overly intrusive) vibrato. At the same time, Benedict Kloeckner uses articulation and dynamics (discharging of notes) to avoid an excess in density, “thickness”. Rather, the interpretation feels intimate, subtle, careful, full of warmth. There is (limited) agogic (dance) swaying across the broad arches, the long phrases (less so in motifs). Also here: a modern interpretation—and an excellent one at that.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’57”)

Menuet I

Some may see a Menuet as a simple, maybe harmless dance movement. Benedict Kloeckner, however, sees this as neither simple, nor harmless. Rather, he offers a carefully pre-meditated, cautious (also in the tempo) and diligent interpretation. He devotes extra care to every detail in articulation in every motif. Not all “common” slurs are observed—but where deviates from the “standard”, this is the result of reflection. One can feel this instantly in the very first notes. In the notation, the initial two quavers are slurred. Here, however, they appear staccato (firm and percussive the first one, the second one lighter, softer). This is indicative of the performance in this movement.

Benedict Kloeckner does not add extra ornaments, neither in the first pass, nor in the repeats. However, there still is variation: the first of the repeats is even more careful / cautious / introverted. Only the second repeat opens a bit, towards more liveliness. Yet, despite all the pre-meditation: to me, the performance doesn’t feel overly didactic. It may be intellectual, but it still is truly excellent.

Menuet II

The second Menuet is the slowest of all, by far. It follows the path of Menuet I, but is even more introverted, retracted—a self-reflection out of silence, so-to-say. There is one extra: at the transition back to the first repeat, there is an extra ornament. Also here, the second repeat is a tad more outgoing, especially in dynamics. And, of course, the transition back to Menuet I is equally reflected and considerate, in all aspects (timing, dynamics, etc.)—as already the first such transition from Menuet I to Menuet II.

VII. Gigue (1’45”)

A distinctly modern interpretation, very fluid, smooth, with occasional idiosyncrasies, such as slight superficialities in tempo control, or the excess highlighting of the ascending semiquaver motifs in bars #21 – #23.

Total Duration: 16’48”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 3.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4 = 4.14

Comment: An excellent, modern interpretation—within this comparison, it is one of the best among these. The extra pieces that the artist commissioned and added to each one of the Suites (see below for the extra to this Suite) certainly help in making this an attractive recording.

Benedict Kloeckner’s Extra for the Suite in G major

José L. Elizondo (source: www.joseelizondo.com; © José Elizondo, all rights reserved)
José L. Elizondo (© José Elizondo)

As outlined in the Comparison Summary, Benedict Kloeckner complemented each of the Suites by adding a contemporary piece that he commissioned himself. In the case of the Cello Suite No.1 in G major, this extra piece is by US composer José L. Elizondo (*1972).

The Composer, José L. Elizondo (*1972)

José L. Elizondo studied Music and Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He continued with studies in musical analysis, orchestration and conducting at Harvard University. His main job is that of an electrical engineer (combining language-related technology, linguistics, computer science and artificial intelligence). José Elizondo now also works as part-time composer. His oeuvre so far covers symphonic, choral and chamber music and is performed by notable orchestras and artists all around the world. For the full biography see the composer’s Website.

The Work: “Unter dem Sternenhimmel des Rheins” (Under the Rhine’s Starry Sky)

The 4-minute (4’13”) solo piece that Benedict Kloeckner commissioned is “Unter dem Sternenhimmel des Rheins“, a reference to the Rhine, the river next to Karlsruhe, the city in which the cellist grew up.

The booklet text (© José Elizondo) states that the composer “attempt[ed] to include […] elements that referenced Mr. Kloeckner’s homeland in Rhineland-Palatinate, he was captivated by the evocative landscapes and medieval castles of the region. The composer imagined a medieval knight riding a horse through these epic landscapes under the starry sky of the river Rhine. The gallant gallop is sometimes punctuated by moments in which the knight, moved by the beauty of nature, stops his ride to engage in contemplation. […] this composition’s premiere […] took place on July 5th, 2020. [It] perfectly suited this imagery: the piece was performed by Benedict Kloeckner in an outdoor concert at night, under the starry sky of the Rhein, at the castle Schloss Burg Namedy on the banks of the Rhein.

More important, though, is the information that Elizondo was inspired by Benedict Kloeckner’s performance of the Cello Suite No.6 in D major, BWV 1012, especially its last movement, Gigue, from which the composer incorporated quotes into his solo piece. So, “Unter dem Sternenhimmel…” is not directly connected to Suite No.1, to which it is paired on the CD.

How Does it Sound?

As unprepared listener, I can’t recognize obvious references to either the river / water, or to a starry sky—but I don’t think that this really matters. As stated above, one cannot expect references to the Suite in G major. Rather, the first part of the composition is a “free” cadenza, which remotely appears to allude to melodic and rhythmic elements from the Gigue in the D major Suite. These allusions are rather well-hidden, though. Primarily, that cadenza establishes the atmosphere, using moody, rebelling, as well as lyrical and melodic elements.

A brief, virtuosic segment leads to the central part, a dialog between short melodic segments in the descant and percussive (galloping) moments in the bass. Soon, a beautiful, elegiac, and melancholic melody takes over, then joins the previous dialog with the galloping bass motif. A lyrical transition leads into the last part, which directly quotes the first 1.5 bars from the D major Gigue—easy to recognize.

Beautiful music, indeed! It is tonal, yet personal and highly original, and very atmospheric: a piece that one can listen to on end!

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Myriam Rignol, Viola da gamba, 2020 (CD cover)
Myriam Rignol (source: www.mirare.fr)

Myriam Rignol, 2020 — Viola da gamba

Artist: Myriam Rignol (*1988, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Viola da gamba (bass viol)
Pitch: a’ = 400 Hz, transposed to A major
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

As outlined in the comparison summary, I have had Paolo Pandolfo’ 2000 recording on CD for well over a decade, and I always liked that very much. As these comparisons will show, Pandolfo offers much more than a “normal” interpretation of cello music on the viola da gamba, but a “full transcription”. I had to step away from initial expectations that Myriam Rignol might somehow top that. However, by no means this implies disappointment: the two recordings are two “different pairs of shoes”—entirely!

I. Prélude (2’55”)

At first, this sounds close to a cello interpretation, faithful to the score (e.g., in observing the composer’s slurs). Soon, however, key differences become evident:

  • As with Marianne Dumas’ interpretation, the “inverted bowing” (here: genuine to the instrument, where the artist’s right hand is under the bow) shifts the focus from the slurred notes towards the detached semiquavers.
  • The sonority of the instrument is distinctly different from that of a cello. At a first glance, one might call it “slightly matte” (most obvious on the low strings). However, that’s a consequence of the more intimate nature, the “language” of the instrument. Within that scope, there is a richness in colors and sonorities that a cello can rarely offer.

Unlike Paolo Pandolfo, Myriam Rignol does not exploit some of the opportunities that the additional (7 in lieu of 4) strings offer (extra harmonization, polyphony, arpeggios, ornamentation, and the like). However, she does move the piece into a richer, more intimate sphere. This is most evident around the fermata in bar 22, where the melody retracts into the finest ppp, just to resume after a short silence, with subtle, gently ascending scales.

II. Allemande (4’59”)

An introverted interpretation, careful, modest, unpretentious in attitude. Myriam Rignol’s tempo is almost identical to Paolo Pandolfo‘s, i.e., slower than all cello interpretations. Unlike Paolo Pandolfo, though, Myriam Rignol does not seize the opportunity of the slow(er) pace to exploit added ornaments, or extra agogics for rhythmic swaying. At least in comparison, her semiquavers “crawl along” much more regularly, lacking tension and swaying. It’s difficult to sense the 2/2 rhythm. Moreover, the slightly dull acoustics / sound management does not help.

All that said, Myriam Rignol is careful, considerate and detailed in the articulation. This has a minor downside: it makes it even harder to feel / follow the 2/2 foundation.

III. Courante (2’56”)

Careful, considerate, and detailed in the articulation. Harmonious in the agogic swaying in every bar, supported by subtle dynamics, as well as articulation (such as the differentiated execution of the quaver motifs). Myriam Rignol also diligently shapes big arches across the two halves. Beautiful—without trying to be spectacular!

IV. Sarabande (2’53”)

A uniquely intimate, “private” Sarabande! Myriam Rignol maintains a harmonious flow, keeps her instrument singing continuously, building long arches across each of the parts, each ending in the most discreet pp. The artist avoids strong expression (let alone drama), in particular strong rhythmic contours. Rather, she subtly softens upbeats, i.e., notes following a punctuated quaver, such as the hemidemisemiquavers in bar #3. With this, she is forming gentle rhythmic contours. On the other hand, there is also a rare instance of equally subtle, inconspicuous jeu inégal (e.g., the semiquavers in bar #2).

One prominent feature of this interpretation is that Myriam Rignol carefully avoids building tension (e.g., around bar lines) by holding back upbeats. Rather, she tends to “lean forward”, to move into the next bar / motif. Some might state that the interpretation lacks tension, and that it lacks all dance character. However, I suspect that (for this movement at least) this is not only deliberate, but that the artist considered this not in the scope of her interpretation (and the instrument, in this case). Unique and maybe a little controversial?

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’59”)

Menuet I

It’s amazing to see how much the transfer to the viola da gamba alters the character of this movement! There’s of course the transposition to A major, but that’s the least relevant of the changes. More relevant are the darker, slightly “covered” sonority of the instrument, and the gentle, mellow articulation. The “viol bowing” (inverted, relative to the cello) does not easily lead to “percussive” articulation.

Also, the “narrower” tuning of the viol (fourths and a third) may force the musician to “skip strings” in wide-spanning chords and arpeggios. This shows up in the three-note opening motif, which can’t be executed in a single bow stroke. Similarly, the same wide (triple-stop) G major chord (here actually A major) in bar #4 is out of reach on the viol—Myriam Rignol omits the lowest note, but instead expands the two-stop chord on the third beat. Such changes are more than adaptations—they also alter the character.

Overall, the “new outfit” suits this movement very well; a beautiful, gently swaying dance, intimate and very atmospheric!

Menuet II

Here, the two Menuets not only share the same pace, but they also appear much closer in character and atmosphere than in a typical cello interpretation. Even the transition from A major (Menuet I) to E minor does not appear to alter the character nearly as much as in a typical performance of the original. Here, Myriam Rignol adds a several additional ornaments to the repeats (more than in Menuet I). These not only fit the character of the instrument, but equally suit the lyrical tone of the music.

Myrial Rignol is among the very few artists who can’t resist doing the da capo instance of Menuet I with both repeats (here, David Watkin and Petr Skalka do this as well). Maybe she wanted to end here with a (slightly) ornamented repeat, rather than with the (less altered) original version? Nothing against more of such beautiful music, of course!

VII. Gigue (1’51”)

One can sense the effect of the “viol bowing” in some changes in the slurring—but just as much in the difference in drive, internal weight, and tension in specific figures / motifs. By and large, these effects are minor, though. Yes, the interpretation is lovelier / gentler and less outgoing than typical cello interpretations. It still reflects the dance character of the movement very well.

I have one little quibble / question: the fourth quaver in bar #19 is consistently altered from E to F (actually: from F to G♯ after transposition to A major). This makes little sense to me, as the equivalent motifs in bar #11 and bar #27 remain unaltered.

Total Duration: 19’33”

Rating: 4 / 3.5 / 4.5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 = 4.21

Comment: If you like the viola da gamba (a.k.a. viol) but feel that Paolo Pandolfo‘s extreme, fantasizing adaptation goes over the top, then this is the recording for you! It moves the Suite into a more intimate, less conspicuous domain, but still presents the gentle, but color-rich characteristics of the viol.

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Petr Skalka, 2020 (CD cover)
Petr Skalka (source: FHNW; © Petr Skalka)

Petr Skalka, 2020

Artist: Petr Skalka
Instrument: Cello by Giuseppe Guarneri “filius Andreae” (1666 – c.1739/1740), c.1700; pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
gut strings, anonymous baroque bow, mid-18th century
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

This is the second recording that I received from Claves Records SA (for reviewing) after I completed the review of the other 24 interpretations of BWV 1007 and their previous submission, the 2021 recording by Pablo de Naverán. For BWV 1007, the review of this recording therefore is somewhat of an outlier (just like de Naverán’s). I try my best to review this performance as thoroughly and as unbiased as all others. However, I cannot re-run the full comparison. Therefore, cross-references to other performances are somewhat sketchy. This caveat only applies to BWV 1007. For all other Suites, the evaluation of Petr Skalka’s interpretation will be fully integrated into the comparison.

I. Prélude (2’26”)

First impressions: Petr Skalka is faithful to Bach’s notation. The non-slurred notes are typically performed as very light détaché, close to staccato. With this, the slurred notes automatically receive emphasis, often reinforced by a broadened accent on the first (lowest) note. Up to the fermata in bar #22, Petr Skalka’s Klangrede consists of the above differentiation in the articulation, combined with dynamic arches across multi-bar phrases. Especially after the Initio (the opening improvisation), which is mostly legato or quasi-legato, the light, quasi-staccato articulation stands out. The articulation (not the interpretation as a whole) occasionally feels somewhat uniform and monotonous, if not a tad austere, academic.

Further into the movement, Skalka introduces more differentiation, highlighting (carefully broadening) key notes / partial motifs, adds a broad crescendo, also intensifying the agogics—overall, this has the effect of a continuous build-up in intensity. The fermata in bar #22 retracts into in intimate pp. The following segment, up to bar #31 very much feel like a cadenza. Other artists do this as well. Pieter Wispelwey, for example (in both his 1998 and 2012 interpretations), even extends the “cadenza feeling” up to bar #40, i.e., almost to the end.

As expected with a baroque bow and gut strings, Skalka’s Guarneri cello offers full and warm, characterful sonority. My main quibble: the frequent quasi-staccato articulation partly defeats the instrument’s sonority.

II. Allemande (5’02”)

This is among the very slowest performances of the Allemande—only Pablo de Naverán is clearly slower (substantially even). Skalka is very careful, highly differentiated in articulation and dynamics. The détaché varies between quasi-legato and quasi-staccato. The artist uses Vibrato only very selectively, subtly, even inconspicuously.

Sadly, Skalka is very restrictive in the use of agogics at the level of motifs. There is subtle swaying—only at the level of longer arches. The predominant means to define phrases is through dynamics (especially at the level of motifs / bars), and in hinted fermatas and minute rests between arches. Some phrases are tied together (e.g., where the intersection between phrases is a punctuated quaver on the first beat of a bar). If there is a sense of dance here, it is at the slowest possible pace. Mostly, the phrases feel static, short of breath over the course of the movement.

Paolo Pandolfo on the viola da gamba takes about the same time for this movement. However, thanks to extreme agogic swaying and rich ornamentation, he does create a distinct, even strong dance feeling.

III. Courante (3’18”)

Here now, there’s plenty of agogics and Klangrede, even dance swaying—albeit at a pace that I hardly associate with a Courante. Petr Skalka again offers the slowest of the performances. And he is rather liberal with the slurs—e.g., he ignores the long slurs over the semiquavers in bars #1 and #3.

I find the Klangrede (agogics, dynamics, differentiation in articulation) exaggerated, even extreme at times. I would often call it peculiar, if not occasionally excessively personal, if not quirky. There are occasionally longer phrases / arches, but for the most part, the extreme agogics disrupt the continuity of the flow, to the point where dancing to this Courante would be impossible. Musically, the occasional fermata / inserted rest may make sense (e.g., at the end of bar #35). However, I think this should all occur within the realm, the continuity of a baroque dance.

IV. Sarabande (3’19”)

Once more, one of the slow performances, but really very beautiful. Very expressive in the dynamics, using agogics which create a swaying motion within (typically) 2-bar phrases (the first part is felt as 2 + 2 + 4 bars). Initially, I felt that the phrases in the first part should be “more connected”. However, upon re-listening I realized that this was mostly a matter of adjusting to Skalka’s solemn pace. Every phrase gets its own, calm breath, and every motif, every single note features carefully shaped dynamics and articulation. And Petr Skalka’s vibrato is very gentle, inconspicuous, applied diligently and sparingly.

The calm pace really lets the artist play out the instrument’s beautiful, rounded, and full-bodied sonority, particularly with the bass strings in chords. It is understandable that in the second pass of the first part, Skalka adds extra, sonorous chords to the punctuated quaver in bar #3, and to the crotchet in bar #4. In general, Skalka uses extra ornaments very sparingly—but these additional chords (which other artists do as well, e.g., Pieter Wispelwey in 2012) don’t feel like extras at all. Another highlight is the extremely gentle re-entry into the closing phrase in bar #13. A beautiful, harmonious, masterful interpretation, which makes this movement feel almost “too big” for the remainder of the Suite!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (4’03”)

Menuet I

At a pace slightly below average, Petr Skalka’s slurred quaver pairs feel too rigid (“square”), too systematic, subsequent quaver pairs feel almost identical in weight and articulation. This leads to a slightly “stomping” rhythm. The performance lacks rhythmic elasticity and tension (at the level of bars, in particular), feels didactic, overall. Others may exaggerate the Klangrede in this movement (check Pieter Wispelwey’s 1998 recording!)—here, there is too little.

Menuet II

Comments like those on Menuet I—though here at least, the tempo is more fluid, and the dynamic differentiation helps a bit. However, here, it’s the détaché quavers which feel rather rigid in articulation and rhythm, lacking elasticity.

Petr Skalka is among the very few artists who can’t resist doing the da capo instance of Menuet I with both repeats (in this G major Suite, David Watkin does this as well, also Myriam Rignol on the viola da gamba).

VII. Gigue (1’38”)

I like much of this interpretation, even though the spiccato / staccato quavers often tend to sound a bit austere. Tempo, phrasing, momentum, agogics, and dynamics are very good, also some nice details, like phrase endings, the transition between phrases, and the shaping of climaxes.

My main objection here, though, is with the motif that appears twice in bar #3 in this Gigue: two semiquavers, followed by two quavers, with a slur over the first three notes. Oddly, in Petr Skalka’s interpretation, the beginning of this motif appears “washed out”, almost into a triplet (if not a quadruplet over the entire motif), without indication for this in the score. It is not exactly a triplet (or a quadruplet), though. It simply sounds sloppy, superficial. Skalka does the same in the subsequent instances in bars #14 and #16. However, he does perform the four instances in bars #21 – #24 as written, which adds further confusion about the artist’s intent. A questionable ending to the Suite, overall.

Total Duration: 20’44”

Rating: 4.5 / 4 / 3.5 / 5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 4 = 4.00

Comment: I very much like the artist’s improvised introduction to the Suite, as well as the Sarabande (even though it is on the slow side). Sadly, most of the other movements don’t live up to the promise of the introduction.

Initio, Skalka’s Improvisation, Leading Towards the Suite in G major

Petr Skalka starts his recording with an introduction to the Prélude—and introduction to the introduction, so-to-say. In concert, a typical listener will be familiar with the Prélude in G major. So, one might argue that an introduction / preparation is unnecessary.

Of course, Bach’s Prélude isn’t merely an introduction—it’s the first “real” movement in a baroque Suite. And undeniably, there is a certain immediacy / directness in opening a recital with the Prélude to one (any!) of Bach’s Cello Suites.

For the G major Suite, Petr Skalka resolves this directness with a 1-minute improvisation. A recording of the Suites is not a recital, of course, and a recital could begin with any of the Suites. However, this example demonstrates how such an introduction can work. Petr Skalka’s improvisation is specific to the G major Suite. It does not use thematic material from the movement that follow (or any of the other movements). However, it is in G major, and it ends on the dominant (D major), in a fermata on F♯. This directly leads into the first note (G) of the Prélude—quasi attacca, with a minimal rest.

Does it Work?

Yes, very much so! Whether it was a real improvisation (unlikely), or the result of a series of trials in the recording session is irrelevant to the listener of the recorded performance. What counts here is the result. Petr Skalka’s short improvisation is simple, but beautiful. It evolves out of the moment, does not use catchy motifs, does not try to compete with Bach’s music or distract from it. There are no direct references to the music that follows (just modulating towards it). It really is just a preparation for Bach’s music. And in concert, it is an ideal tool to grab the listener’s attention and focus, to get the audience ready for Bach’s masterworks.

Skalka’s improvisation is a slow, reflective / exploring piece: it starts with a long, soft note, gradually builds up to motifs, chords, a climax, retracting to pp, then building up intensity again, while modulating towards the dominant, and into a fermata—the transition to the Prélude forms a cadence. The “piece” is senza tempo, really, free, non-thematic, evolving out of the moment. Skalka’s tone is almost vibrato-less (not flat, by any means!), but intense, and very present. Just around the two climaxes, Skalka lets the tone breathe with a harmoniously evolving, subtle vibration. A marvel, a proposal, an example for what musicians can do—and an invitation for other artists to try the same!

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Bruno Philippe, 2021 (CD cover)
Bruno Philippe (© Philippe Matsas)

Bruno Philippe, 2021

Artist: Bruno Philippe (*1993)
Instrument: Carlo Annibale Tononi (1675 – 1730), Venice; gut strings and baroque bow
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

I. Prélude (2’07”)

Highly interesting! Bruno Philippe offers one of the most fluid performances. In some ways, it reminds me of Thomas Demenga‘s interpretation, even though that is far more relaxed, and allowing more “room” for emphasis on specific notes (slurs, etc.).

Bruno Philippe’s pace may be one of the fastest—it does not feel so. Rather, it is playful, light—and yet, the artist pays attention to details, allows for highlights, agogics, phrasing, dynamic differentiation: exceptional! There are even the occasional, casually added ornaments, such as an inverted mordent on the c♯’ in bar #9, a mordent on the fermata (bar #22), another inverted mordent in the second one of the descending scales in bar #29. All these are fitting very well, and they remain inconspicuous.

The artist remains truthful to the notation (slurs). Only at the climax, in bars #39 – #41, he only plays the first of two slurs in each bar. This has the effect of grouping two motifs into one, emphasizing the first note in each bar. This has a Hemiola-like effect: it feels like an “implicit” ritardando and broadens the climax—excellent idea!

II. Allemande (4’29”)

In most movements, Bruno Philippe tends towards a fluid tempo (he is often among the fastest). Here, as well as in the Sarabande, however, his pace is almost exactly meeting the average among the 24 recordings.

The artist does not dogmatically follow the slurs in the score (e.g., Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy). He rather focuses on a careful and detailed, “speaking” articulation. Even more central to Bruno Philippe’s interpretation are the phrasing arches. While the agogics at the level of motifs remain inconspicuous, the interpretation breathes naturally, without ever losing tension. The music “speaks” in phrases, and phrases are joining to form beautiful, broad dramatic arches across each of the halves.

Another excellent aspect of this interpretation is in dynamics and ornamentation. For one, the dynamics (of course) support the phrasing arches. Then, not unlike David Watkin‘s interpretation, the quavers forming large, descending intervals at the end of phrases in bars #26, #27, #28 are retracting into intimacy, “turning inwards”. The endings of both halves are not affirmative, rather softening, transcending, transfigured. The repeats are both more intimate and delicate than the first passes. Moreover, Bruno Philippe enriches them with a set of beautiful, personal, and inventive, yet very well-fitting ornaments. Well-placed, but never intrusive, never overloading the melody. Well done!

III. Courante (2’23”)

Excellent, masterful! One of the fastest performances, though never feels too fast or pushed, rather retains clarity and a natural “language”, is playful (never even a tad didactic or pedantic), careful and diligent throughout. Indeed, this leaves very little, if anything to wish for!

Bruno Philippe uses the repeats as opportunity for extra ornaments. These are not just full of fantasy, but very well-fitting—and, most importantly, they leave the key elements of Bach’s music intact: they are entertaining, but don’t distort the music, or distract from it. I could not resist smiling at the initial note of the first repeat: at first, this feels like a little accident (a bouncing bow), but the following appears to justify that “feature” as a first ornament of sorts.

IV. Sarabande (2’54”)

Wonderful again! The artist masterfully combines eloquent, light articulation with long phrasing arches. Klangrede at the level of motifs and broad arches, calm and tension across broad arches. Each of the two parts forms a coherent, conclusive narration / tale, a dramatic unit. And Bruno Philippe remains respectful towards the composition: the first passes remain unaltered, but in the repeats (especially in the first part), he adds his own ornamentation (excellent again, as expected!). For the last part of the second repeat, though, he returns to Bach’s unaltered text: an excellent idea, actually! Some might argue that the dance character of a Sarabande is not so obvious here. However, I think that, given the richness of the interpretation, that point is irrelevant.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’46”)

Menuet I

A fluid tempo—but not fast. The artist consciously left the first Menuet “as is”—simple, without extras, no added ornaments (just an inconspicuous inverted mordent on the third quaver in bar #12). A simple, straight Menuet, indeed, very nicely and carefully played / articulated, though. And this movement needs to be judged in connection with Menuet II—which gives it a wholly new meaning!

Menuet II

Ah—that’s why the Menuet I was kept so simple!! Here, Bruno Philippe opted for an extreme contrast—the fastest performance in this comparison! Of course, it’s not just fast, but mastered extremely well. Superb in all aspects. Moreover, the interpretation is playful, almost exuberant with all the added (both fun and exquisite) ornaments. It is even faster than Sergey Malov‘s Menuet II—but with repeats, and in a meaningful contrast, a perfect complement to the well-behaved, if not (seemingly) trivial Menuet I.

VII. Gigue (1’21”)

After the Menuet II, the Gigue is the second movement in this suite where Bruno Philippe’s tempo is faster than anybody else’s. And swinging, dancing it is, two beats per bar at a rapid, wildly whirling pace! The articulation is detailed, flexible / elastic, and never a tad dry: enthralling! Already the first repeat features an extra ornament in bar #10. In the second part, in bars #16 – #189, Bruno Philippe uses the instrument’s registers (d vs. a strings) to highlight the bottom notes. In bars #21 – #24, he even expands this to a veritable dialog between higher and lower motifs.

With the second repeat, finally, Bruno Philippe drops all inhibitions! He adds virtuosic runs in bars #17 and #18, even a drone in bars #25 and #26, overflowing in playfulness and casual virtuosity: stunning!

Total Duration: 16’00”

Rating: 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 = 4.71

Comment: Amazing—the youngest among the 22 artists, and already (deservedly!) very close to the very top in this comparison! Congratulations—and a strong recommendation!

J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo — Pablo de Naverán, 2021 (CD cover)

Artist: Pablo de Naverán (*1975)
Instrument: Carlo Antonio Testore (1687 – 1765), Milan, 1723
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

This is a recording that I received from Claves Records SA (for reviewing) after I completed the review of the other 24 interpretations of BWV 1007. I try my best to review this performance as thoroughly and as unbiased as all others. However, I cannot re-run the full comparison. Therefore, cross-references to other performances are somewhat sketchy. This caveat only applies to BWV 1007. For all other Suites, the evaluation of Pablo de Naverán’s interpretation will be “native”, i.e., fully integrated into the comparison.

I. Prélude (3’11”)

Except for Jaap ter Linden (1996), this is the slowest interpretation. It features full, rich, and characterful sonority, slightly “grainy” in the bass. The slow pace makes it feel careful, almost celebrated. With the agogics it is far less uniform than Jaap ter Linden’s performance. One characteristic of this interpretation is the pronounced, emphatic broadening in the first 2 – 3 notes (ascending broken chord) in bars with repeated motifs (e.g., bars #1 – #5, #7, #8, #20, #22), or in climaxes (bars #34/#35, and #38/#39). Expectedly, with the slow pace, the focus is more on the smaller, local figures than on the large-scale arches / developments.

Not surprisingly, with the prominent notes on empty (C and G) strings, Pablo de Naverán plays largely without vibrato (exceptions are some peak notes in the descant). The absence of vibrato is particularly obvious (and refreshing) in the fermata on d’ (bar #22), or in the “infinite decrescendo” on the g’ in the final chord.

The reverberation from the church acoustics is clearly present in this recording. However, it is not excessive. It rather complements and supports the interpretation, especially at the artist’s slow tempo choices.

II. Allemande (5’51”)

Already the Prélude was among the slowest in the comparison. Here, however, the interpretation is substantially slower than any of the other recordings, even those on the viola da gamba. With this, the interpretation is devoid of dance character, despite the pronounced swaying / agogics in every bar (the center of every bar being noticeably slower than beginning and end). The swaying is also supported by dynamics, and there is a beautiful, pronounced dynamic arch across the two parts of the Allemande, with climaxes in bars #10/#11, and in bar #13. The crescendo in the ascending scale in bar #13 feels a little too pronounced, maybe.

Pablo de Naverán leaves out some of Bach’s (?) ornaments, but instead discreetly adds one or the other little trill, rarely an inconspicuous acciaccatura.

If the movement wasn’t annotated Allemande and hence by definition a dance, this interpretation would make up for a beautiful slow movement (in a church sonata, that is). The interpretation is indeed careful, beautiful, and intense throughout. As a dance, this performance lacks flow and rhythmic motion (even modest drive). It is far too focused on the beauty of the moment, on the slow and calm, wide-spanning breath.

III. Courante (2’48”)

In the fast(er) movements (Courante, Gigue), Pablo de Naverán follows tempo conventions more closely, performing just slightly below the average pace. So yes, the tempo is “about right”, no complaints about intonation and ornamentation (inconspicuous and fitting, largely), the tone / sonority / recording technique excellent / beautiful.

Yet, I have some question marks. First, about slurs: true, the available slurring in the score is notoriously incomplete / inconsequent, hence some artistic freedom is acceptable. Most artists perform the semiquavers in bars #1 and #3 under a single or two slurs, maybe in two or three bow strokes. However, Pablo de Naverán is the only artist among the 25 performing all these notes détaché. I’m not sure whether this is a good solution. It breaks down that arch of semiquavers into individual tones, affecting the momentum in this figure.

My main objection, though, is with the musical flow. Despite a “good” tempo, there is no real “dance feeling”. Rather, one might call the musical flow (somewhat) erratic. The music breaks down into a sequence / collection of undoubtedly beautiful motifs. These typically / individually feature swaying agogics and momentum. However, they don’t connect to a coherently swaying dance motion. No, I’m not looking for regular (let alone mechanic) swaying, merely for a rhythmic connection that makes it conceivable to dance to this music.

IV. Sarabande (3’48”)

Here we are again: clearly the slowest among the 25 performances. And slow it is, indeed—even static. Epic already the two arpeggios, coming to a halt on the punctuated c’. The transition to b appears to take forever. The idea of the Sarabande being a dance could not be any farther from this interpretation. The focus in this performance is entirely on the moment, the current motif—the “perception horizon” rarely spans over more than two bars. With this, it’s no more than logical that Pablo de Naverán adds a chord (C-G) to the e in bar #3, indulging in a broad, sonorous arpeggio. The semiquaver figure in bar #4 ends in a, not g, see the note above. The subsequent trill has a G added underneath, highlighting the dissonant nature of the f♯ appoggiatura on the trill.

The above are the only added “accompaniment notes” in Pablo de Naverán’s interpretation. Thereafter, he rather omits the trills in bars #5, #10 (first pass only), and #11, and interestingly, he also omits the chord notes (A-e) in bar 14. Beautiful playing (I even like the broadly, harmoniously swaying vibrato on the bass chords), beautiful sonority—with its exceedingly slow pace, the interpretation is “off the charts”, I’m afraid. The playing is baroque, no doubts, but isn’t the overall attitude a romantic (if not post-romantic) one? Too much indulging in the beauty of the moment?

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’55”)

Menuet I

The first Menuet is—no surprise—once more the slowest performance in the comparison. The tempo is not the main issue here, though. Rather, it’s in articulation and dynamics: in contrast to Pablo Casals‘ “percussive” bowing, here, the rhythmic contours “washed out”, as if the artist meant to reduce the contrast between crotchets, quavers, and semiquavers. With this, especially the semiquaver motifs completely lack the “local momentum”.

In addition, every crotchet period is strangely fluffy in the articulation. It’s hard to describe—I thought of “belly dynamics”, but that doesn’t describe it well enough. Maybe the cellist meant to apply “light articulation”? Here, though, this has the effect of isolating the bow strokes (particularly the slurred quaver pairs), disconnecting the elements of bigger phrases. With this, the movement lacks drive and tension, and I miss the springy elasticity of a dance movement. Was the idea to destroy the notion of a dance?

Menuet II

In the case of Menuet II, there is one slower performance (Benedict Kloeckner)—the tempo a tad slower than that in the first Menuet, i.e., rather slow. Also here, there is some of the fluffy articulation from Menuet I. The first part is very restrained, almost timid in the first pass. In the repeat, it assumes a little more “grip”, a tad firmness.

In the second part, Pablo de Naverán plays pairs of slurred quavers almost throughout, which I find a bad choice. For one, it makes that part rather uniform, reducing internal contrast. Furthermore, Menuet I had plenty of quaver pairs already. And the movement again avoids any notion of rhythmic dance swaying.

VII. Gigue (1’54”)

Here, the Gigue follows attacca, i.e., the upbeat to the first bar becomes part of the last bar in Menuet Istaccato, followed by some “air” when the artist moves the bow to the frog. That same “feature” reappears in the transition to the repeat, at the transition to bar #5, and again for the second part. My only quibble here is that this upbeat is so strong that in some instances it appears as a syncope, which can’t have been Bach’s intent. In bar #1, the effect is somewhat attenuated by a pronounced accent on the first beat.

Apart from the above idiosyncrasy and some slight exaggerations in dynamics and agogics (local accelerations), though, I like the performance. It has momentum, drive, and springy dance swaying (!). It is lively, but not overly driven, joyful—the best movement in this suite performance.

Total Duration: 21’27”

Rating: 4.5 / 4 / 4 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3 / 4.5 = 3.86

Comment: A highly individual interpretation that largely ignores dance character, tempo and other conventions. Interesting and recommended, though not as the only recording in a collection.


The table above should be self-explanatory, especially in combination with the detailed comments for each of the recordings. Keep in mind that the ratings reflect my own opinion. I have stated that I prefer historically informed performances. To some degree, this has of course influenced the results above. More so, my aversion against strong vibrato has had its effect on my ratings. And, of course, my preference has “not helped” the rating of traditional performances.

Short Summary / Highlights

As a quick summary: my comparison features an exceptionally broad range of performance styles:

Specialties, Alternatives, Outliers

I have included several “special” recordings—transpositions and adaptations for other instruments, such as the viola, the violoncello da spalla, and the viola da gamba (viol). These competed with variable success. I regard the viola and violoncello da spalla recordings as special, even curiosities to some degree:

  • Kim Kashkashian‘s viola interpretation deserves some interest, as the viola offers new sonorous perspectives, shedding light onto otherwise “underrated” aspects of Bach’s compositions. Too bad it comes from a tradition (“school”) that is quite far from today’s HIP performances.
  • Myriam Rignol‘s 2020 recording on a 7-string viola da gamba comes closest to a good HIP performance on a cello, offering the benefit of special sonority / “language” of the viol.
  • In my rating, Paolo Pandolfo‘s 2000 viola da gamba interpretation ranks even higher, close to the maximum. It is indeed one of my favorites. However, it is clearly an outlier, as Paolo Pandolfo takes way beyond a simple transcription, occasionally into the direction of a “recomposition”. It remains baroque music, though, beautiful baroque music, indeed—albeit not entirely by Bach.

If you think you already have the cello recording(s) you like the most: why not expand and enrich your experience? Why not venture listening into performances on one of the above alternative instruments?

Other Review Posts on J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites, BWV 1007 – 1012


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