J. S. Bach: Suite No.2 for Cello Solo in D minor, BWV 1008

Media Review / Comparison


2024-02-09 — Original posting


Table of Contents


Introduction — The Recordings

This posting is about the Suite No.2 for Cello Solo in D minor, BWV 1008, 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
2019EmmanuelleBertrand1973
Wiki
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1979AnnerBylsma19342019Wiki
a' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1992AnnerBylsma19342019Wiki
a' = 432/415ReviewArtist, Media
1936-39PabloCasals18761973Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2014ThomasDemenga1954
WikiWeba' = 392ReviewArtist, Media
2016MarianneDumas


Weba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2013IsangEnders1988
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1961PierreFournier19061986Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2010OphélieGaillard1974
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2005StevenIsserlis1958
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2017KimKashkashian1952
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2020BenedictKloeckner1989
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
1996Jaap, ter Linden1947
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2018SergeyMalov1983
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2021Pablo, deNaverán1975

Weba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2000PaoloPandolfo1964
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1998VitoPaternoster1957
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2021BrunoPhilippe1993

Weba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2007Jean-GuihenQueyras1967
WikiWeba' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2020MyriamRignol1988
WikiWeba' = 400ReviewArtist, Media
1991MstislavRostropovich19272007Wiki
a' = 440ReviewArtist, Media
2020PetrSkalka


Weba' = 415
ReviewArtist, Media
2019JurisTeichmanis1966

Weba' = 400ReviewArtist, Media
2013DavidWatkin1965

Weba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
1998PieterWispelwey1962
WikiWeba' = 415ReviewArtist, Media
2012PieterWispelwey1962
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.2 for Cello Solo in D minor, BWV 1008

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.2 for Cello Solo in D minor, BWV 1008 in my concert reviews:

  • On 2020-01-21, the cellist Lev Sivkov (*1990) performed the first movement, Prélude, as one of two encores.
  • 2021-04-25, artist: Anastasia Kobekina (*1994, see also Wikipedia) — The complete 6 Suites for Cello Solo, BWV 1007 – 1012
  • The following year, on 2022-08-17, the same artist, Anastasia Kobekina, performed the Sarabande, the Suite No.2 for Cello Solo in D minor, BWV 1008, as encore in an orchestral concert.

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

The Prélude has no tempo annotation. Many would call this tempo ordinario—which still leaves it open what the intended tempo is. I suspect that extremes (very fast or very slow) ought to be avoided. One open question for the artist is with the last five bars, which consist of just a single 3-stop chord (4-stop for the final chord). Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy does not offer any hints as to what to do with these chords. Printed editions include a footnote suggesting an execution as (free style) arpeggiando.

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 1. Prélude, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 1. Prélude, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

Some artists (Anner Bylsma 1979, Marianne Dumas 2016, Pieter Wispelwey—both 1998 and 2012, Isang Enders 2012, and of course Paolo Pandolfo 2000) indeed do arpeggiando, others insert ornaments (fioriture), scales maybe, while other perform just the chords. All this may be OK. At a very slow pace, however, the “naked” chords sound somewhat odd, too frugal. I feel so especially in the context of a historically informed (HIP) performance.

Note that the p and f marks in bars 49 and 54, respectively, are not present in Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy.

II. Allemande

The Allemande begs questions about tempo and ornamentation. As for the latter: it is not untypical of Bach that the ornamentation is already part of the composition. Here, Bach annotated four (dotted) quavers with trills (tr.), and bar 9 includes a chain of demisemiquavers that clearly has ornament character. For the rest, the text is mostly in semiquavers and does not appear to ask for lots of extra ornamentation. In any case, most artists respect the composer’s text by leaving the first passes unaltered. Whether or not to add (few) ornaments in the repeats also depends on the chosen tempo…

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 2. Allemande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 2. Allemande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

… and the tempo looks like a key issue here. One can already see this from the extreme span in the recordings, where the timing varies between 2.5 and 6 (!) minutes. The movement is in 4/4 (common time), and the Allemande is a baroque dance. Hence, the performance ought to show / retain some dance character, based on a crotchet pace. One challenge is that the text is dominated by semiquavers, which can lead to the 4/4 foundation getting lost at a slow pace. On the other hand, the demisemiquaver figure in bar 9 (see the score sample below) can be seen as setting an upper limit to the tempo. However, some artists may use agogics to “stretch the time” around this figure.

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 2. Allemande (bars 7 - 12), MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 2. Allemande (bars 7 – 12), MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)

III. Courante

Bach arranged his Suites for Cello solo in the order of ascending technical demand. The Courante in the second Suite (in 3/4 time) is a little challenge in agility:

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 3. Courante, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 3. Courante, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

One can sense that this movement is tailored to the characteristics of the cello. Cellists bring forward the rhythmic-virtuosic side of the movement. They typically throw themselves into the phrases, most building up to a (often violent) closing chord, often at the point where they can just about articulate the virtuosic semiquaver figures in the fast 3/4 Courante meter. The focus in such interpretations is on the build-up and release of momentum across the phrases. Often, one can hardly feel the underlying 3/4 meter, let alone a “dance swaying”. A challenge, indeed!

The two interpretations on viola da gamba in this comparison don’t try competing with the virtuosic aspect of this movement. Rather, they select a slower pace, focusing on the expression, the melodic aspect, the narration, Klangrede, etc.—a welcome broadening of the scope!

IV. Sarabande

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 4. Sarabande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 4. Sarabande, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

Apart from the Gigue, all movements in this Suite give rise to a huge variety of interpretations, even just from the point-of-view of tempo. The Sarabande is no exception to this. Some may argue that the Sarabande originally was a fast dance in Spain. However, in high-baroque times, it had long mutated into a slow, often solemn dance. Yet, the tempo spread here ranges from solemn, static, romantic interpretations, up to relatively fluid tempo choices, which may be attempts to revert the dance to its Spanish origins?

A Manuscript Error?

Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy contains a rather unusual passage in bars 24 – 26 (for the key signature see the excerpt above):

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 4. Sarabande, bars 24 – 26, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Cello Suite #2: Sarabande, bars 24 – 26, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

Bars 25/26 read (a-b-c’-b♭-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c‘-d’). The b♭ in bar 25 appears clear (even though it is vertically shifted). It is indirectly confirmed by the presence of a natural sign (♮) in the last pair of semiquavers. Bar 26 is less clear: the on the second note looks more like a or a ♮, and the sign preceding the fourth note is even less clear—it could be a , a ♮, or a .

What to Make of This??

Juris Teichmanis (2019) and Petr Skalka (2020) indeed perform (a-b-c’-b♭-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c‘-d’). Jean-Guihen Queyras (2007) follows that path, too—but only in the repeat. The standard notation in today’s printed editions reads (a-b-c’-b-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c♯’-d’):

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 4. Sarabande, bars 25/26
Cello Suite #2: Sarabande, bars 25/26

(only bars 25/26 shown). The printed editions obviously regard the b♭ and the natural c‘ as manuscript errors. For bar 25, Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy clearly points towards the alternate reading—ignoring the two extra signs appears negligent at the very least, and there should be an indication for the ambiguity in bar 26.

However, most artists are performing the second / simplified version above. And typically, that’s what listeners (myself included) expect. I concede that to me, the manuscript reading sounds rather unusual, if not simply wrong (my instant reaction to this is “A mishap! That can’t really be real—or can it?”). However, this could just be the power of listening habits, based on performances and recordings from Casals up to today.

V. Menuet I

After a Prélude, all of Bach’s Cello Suites feature the four regular suite movements Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue. In addition, in all the Suites, Bach inserted two extra dance movements between the Sarabande and the Gigue. For Suites I and II, this “extra” is a pair of Menuets, whereby each Menuet is of the form AABB, i.e., two parts, each with repeat sign. Here is Menuet I, in the main key of D minor:

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 5a. Menuet I, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 5a. Menuet I, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

VI. Menuet II

And here is Menuet II, in the contrasting key of D major:

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 5b. Menuet II, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 5b. Menuet II, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

The contrast between these movements is not just in the key, but they also feature different themes, different, contrasting characters. Both Menuets are in 3/4 time and consist of 8 + 16 bars. With this, the timing in the table below directly shows whether artists chose a similar, if not even identical tempo for the two movements, or whether they rather opt for contrast. Among the latter one finds Pablo de Naverán (2021), Paolo Pandolfo (viola da gamba, 2000), and Juris Teichmanis (2018 – 2019) with the strongest contrasts, plus a few others with minor tempo differences.

The manuscripts explicitly state Menuet I da capo. With very few exceptions (mentioned below), that da capo instance is performed without repeats.

VII. Gigue

The closing piece, a lighter dance movement is a Gigue, in 3/8 time, and again in AABB form:

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 6. Gigue, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach (source: digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de; public domain, CC-BY 4.0)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 BWV 1008: 6. Gigue, MS copy Anna Magdalena Bach

Interesting: in this Suite, there is an amazingly large spread in tempo among the 26 recordings. With some movements, that spread covers almost a factor of two. The Gigue is the only exception in this, showing relative unanimity in tempo among the artists. One might speculate that the definition of a Gigue (or the common understanding of what constitutes a Gigue) is narrower, more precise than for the other movements in the baroque Suite. Or could it be that the technical challenges in this particular movement simply preclude tempo extremes?

Anna Magdalena Bach’s digitized manuscript copy is available 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

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.

Bach: Cello Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008 — comparison table (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)
Bach: Cello Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008 — comparison table (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)

I have not corrected the timings for trailing or leading blank time, except for 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.

As for the “slow” and “fast” coloring: note that one or two extreme performances can distort the color scaler. In other words: in all movements but the last one, there are extremely slow or extremely fast performances. These pull the average onto their side. Ideally, I should eliminate these extremes from the calculation of the average. I have not done this—after all, tempo is not a quality criterion—except for exactly these extremes, where it may raise a red flag. It is mostly a means for me to determine a good listening sequence. It is more important how the tempo feels. And this is influenced by articulation and phrasing, etc.

Repeats

Not all artists perform all repeats. In the cases where repeats were omitted, the track durations were corrected in the table, by adding the time for the missing repeats. The durations in the table are to be read as “if the artist had performed all repeats“. In the same vein, I have corrected the times for omitted segments (see Pablo de Naverán) or added bars (see Paolo Pandolfo).

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 own 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 many recordings, I tend to use a relative scale covering the full range of (close to) ★ … ★★★★★, to achieve more differentiation among the many ratings. My rating criteria resemble 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.

Audiophile?

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 influence 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 afford “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.

Duplications…

It’s been a while since my last review in this series. I try not to delay these reviews too much. However, the delay has the advantage that I can approach this review without bias from the preceding ones. I apologize for duplication with earlier reviews. One benefit of the text duplications is that they help making each review readable by itself, without an excess of cross-links to other postings.


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

Pablo Casals, 1936

EMI Classics, ℗ 1988/2003 / © 2003
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’43”)

The archetype of all modern interpretations! There’s Casals’ intense, vibrating tone: interestingly, the vibrato never feels intrusive and does not affect the intonation. There’s agogics / phrasing, both in motifs, as well as in bigger arches. What dominates, however, is persistence with which Casals shapes a single, huge, and impressive build-up, up to the very intense climax and the fermata in bar 48. Along with the intensity, Casals also picks up drive and tempo, from a solemn retained beginning up to the enthralling climax. Persistence and intensity, indeed. Yet, the artist always lets the music breathe—the listener never feels suffocated by the music.

Very impressive, indeed—also in the coda. Of course, there are no fancy cadenzas in the last five bars—just powerful, very energetic arpeggio chords. There, Casals keeps the bow on the top two chords / notes, maintaining intensity up to the very last moment.

II. Allemande (3’54”)

A prime example of Casals’ percussive and highly emphatic articulation, his relentlessly intense, vibrant tone, the powerful chords (some forceful like whip lashes!). Still very impressive, poignant, full of urgency. At best, dance swaying is hidden in the continuity of the musical flow. Casals must have been aware of the dance character of the Allemande. However, unlike recent HIP interpretations, he could not resort to Klangrede (agogics and “speaking articulation”) to let the music “dance”. It’s an impressive interpretation, nevertheless.

III. Courante (2’17”)

A few things make this performance stand out from most or all others. Unlike typical, newer interpretations, Casals’ primary objective is not in producing harmonious arches between the chords (“cornerstones”) through agogics and dynamics. The cornerstone chords of course remain a prominent feature—here with vehemence, often violent bow strokes, ending in dense vibrato. In-between, there is enthralling momentum, drive—and dynamic contrast: the tone often has unparalleled urgency (firm contact between bow and strings). And such segments alternate with a high-tension p / pp, where the bow is lighter. Casals often highlights key notes with adding a second string in unison.

A unique, enthralling interpretation “con alcune licenze“, far from trying to achieve sound esthetics: the focus is on uncompromising expression—wild, bursting out.

IV. Sarabande (4’07”)

It feels as if Pablo Casals had an intuitive, innate understanding for the nature of the Sarabande as a dance movement! Flowing, broad dance swaying, fluid, yet calm, expressive, broad dynamic arches, incessant intensity. Exemplary—a role model to this day!

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

Menuet I

Casals, undeniably! Chords with unmatched verve and momentum, broad, quasi-legato articulation, strong emphasis on every note. Little agogics, but dance swaying through dynamics only. An interpretation of the past, obviously. In bar 18, Casals altered the text.

Menuet II

Noticeably faster, subtle and intimate, but vibrant, and never losing tension, harmonious in the flow. Occasionally, the pace appears to run away by a very tiny amount—however, this was the equivalent of a live recording…

VII. Gigue (2’44”)

Another true / exemplary Casals interpretation, with percussive articulation, verve, momentum, clarity, emphasis, rhythmical firmness, and agogic swaying: radical and consequent in their approach, and hard to get off one’s mind, once one has listened to it.

Total Duration: 20’04”

Rating: 5 / 4 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 = 4.43

Comment: Casals’ recording of the Bach Suites are simply a must-have. They are different from modern, polished, and technically perfect interpretations, and equally far away from recent HIP performances. Nevertheless, they are historic, groundbreaking landmarks, consequent, radical—and modern in their own, unique way! Casals is a class of his own.


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

Pierre Fournier, 1961

Archiv Produktion / Polydor International, ℗ 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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’26”)

Beautiful, conventional cello sonority with ubiquitous, intense vibrato (luckily not overly nervous). Broad, typically quasi-legato articulation, constantly dense tone, focusing on cantilena, smooth agogics, and a consequent, dynamic (and tempo) build-up towards the fermata in bar 48. Wide-spanning arches, often relentless.

After bar 48 (coda), Pierre Fournier returns to a more intimate tone and a calmer pace. There is a minor build-up in that last part—and the final chords are just that: long / broad chords, each starting with an energetic arpeggio, then held up to the next one. Nobody can say that it is “wrong” or “sounding badly”. However, it clearly is a romantic interpretation from a past age, which has little or nothing to do with how we understand baroque music today.

II. Allemande (3’26”)

Very differentiated dynamics, but very broad articulation and regular flow, uniform within motifs. Yes, there’s Fournier’s beautiful, dense (and densely vibrating) tone, with prominent excursions to intensive f dynamics. There are moments of momentary rest, but in general, the flow is relentless—old style Bach, often motoric / mechanic, without even traces of dance swaying / character. An interpretation of the past.

III. Courante (2’06”)

The timing is close to Rostropovich’s (1991)—however, luckily, Fournier’s interpretation is not nearly as mechanic, the articulation far more careful, the dynamics more differentiated. Yes, there is some relentlessness also here. Splitting some of the longer phrases would certainly help. My main objection is that at every double bar line, Fournier closes as if the piece ended, then leaves a little pause before abruptly starting the repeat or the second part. There is no attempt to link the segments musically.

IV. Sarabande (4’18”)

No surprise: ubiquitous vibrato—luckily not extremely nervous, but harmonious. Fournier played this quasi-legato almost throughout. Calm, steady, very little, if any agogics, no dance feeling at all, but moving forward in a continuous flow. Most of the movement is p, only building up volume and density towards the end of a phrase / part. Focus on sound esthetics, cantilenas and continuity—a stark contrast to Casals!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’17”)

Menuet I

Strangely, in the first Menuet, the sound initially is very dull, muffled—only gradually, it brightens up. A mishap with the recording technique? Compared to Pablo Casals (1936), Fournier’s articulation is less percussive, broader, also emphatic, and vibrant (the vibrato is somewhat nervous), but rhythmically somewhat rigid, if not occasionally stiff.

Menuet II

Besides Emmanuelle Bertrand (2019), Benedikt Kloeckner (2021), Vito Paternoster (1998), Petr Skalka (2020), and Jaap ter Linden (1996), Pierre Fournier is in a minority of artists that keep both Menuets at almost or exactly the same pace. Menuet II is gentler, more lyrical, but also rhythmically somewhat schematic.

The da capo instance of Menuet I features the same flawed sound / acoustics as the initial instance, which makes me wonder whether the da capo was created by the editor?

VII. Gigue (2’37”)

Verve, momentum, and the typical “Fournier tone”, firm, strongly rhythmic. The first pass of the second part has a couple notes (semiquavers) with unclear intonation. Was the artist carried away, or did the vibrato cause the issue? It’s not a big deal, though.

Total Duration: 19’10”

Rating: 3.5 / 3 / 3 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 4 = 3.43

Comment: Pablo Casals‘ interpretations of the Bach Suites are inimitable and unique. I’m not aware of a “school” of followers who tried copying his approach. There was, however, a “school” of “modern” / traditional (conventional) interpretation of that repertoire in the second half of the 20th century. Pierre Fournier stands out in this school as a prime example—with unequalled sound culture. True, one can no longer perform these Suites the way he did. Nevertheless, if you are interested in the performance history of the Bach Suites and want to cover “classic” interpretations of the past century (and you already have Casals’ recordings), Fournier is certainly a viable option (and I’m sure there are also other alternatives).


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

Anner Bylsma, 1979

Sony / Essential Classics, ℗ 1979 / © 1999
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’09”)

A (maybe the foremost) pioneering HIP performance. Naturally, it doesn’t reach quite the level of the newer recording from 1992. It doesn’t just fall off against the latter in recording (and probably instrument) sonority: it also offers less detail, less coherence. It’s noticeably faster than the 1992 recording. It is also a tad noisier—less effort was made to obtain a “nice” (polished?) sound. Particularly upstrokes often produce a slightly whirring tone. In the final chords, Anner Bylsma used a more complex (too elaborate, maybe?) arpeggiando scheme than the few others who follow this route, i.e., Marianne Dumas 2016, Pieter Wispelwey (1998, 2012), Isang Enders 2012, and of course Paolo Pandolfo (2000).

II. Allemande (3’49”)

Both in the tempo, as well as in the general approach, Bylsma’s first interpretation appears as a model for Jaap ter Linden’s 1996 interpretation. However, the articulation is much lighter, less intense, the agogic and dynamic swaying more pronounced (even tough not quite as regular and “dancing” as in other recordings). Interestingly, that interpretation is substantially more fluid than the artist’s second, 1992 interpretation. And the tone here is less “polished”—but not to the point where the noise component would irritate.

III. Courante (2’04”)

Fast, full of drive and momentum—enthralling, colorful, sufficiently elastic in the rhythm, allowing for vibrant highlights. My main quibble is with the occasional tendency to let the pace run away, e.g., in the second half of both parts—as if the artist got carried away. In concert, this would probably go unnoticed. In a recording, however…

IV. Sarabande (3’16”)

The fastest of the Sarabandes in all of the 26 recordings, noticeably faster even than the artist’s more recent recording from 1992. Most would probably now regard this as (almost) too fast, too restless for a Sarabande. It is remarkable, nevertheless. Compared to the 1992 recording, the playing feels a little less controlled, less careful and detailed—a little wild even, occasionally. I should also note that there is a big difference in the sound quality—and in the sonority. Overall, I would certainly recommend the newer interpretation over this older one.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’11”)

Menuet I

A bit rough, almost harsh or aggressive in the sonority, with strong rhythmic contours, but limited agogic swaying. Rather “hard” / coarse for a Menuet. Unnecessarily blown up closing tones.

Menuet II

Limited contrast to the first Menuet in terms of sonority / articulation. I was expecting more intimacy and warmth. I do like the rhythmic continuity, though.

VII. Gigue (2’38”)

Highly energetic and engaged, strongly rhythmic, full of momentum and irresistible forward drive, sometimes bordering on noisy.

Total Duration: 18’06”

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

Comment: A pioneering recording among historically informed performances. Nevertheless, I certainly prefer Anner Bylsma’s newer recording from 1992. That may be more moderate / less radical, but it clearly offers better sonority (both instrumental, as well as in recording technique).


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

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1991

EMI Classics, ℗/© 1995
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’09”)

A romantic interpretation, full of somewhat nervous vibrato, often with a highly intensive, dense tone and an even richer vibration. However, I think this movement is better than any in the Suite No.1 in G major: there are impressive, big dynamic arches and build-ups, and the arches are associated with large scale swaying motion. Romantic, as stated: the entire movement feels like a single, end- and relentless stream. Local / smaller scale phrasing, let alone Klangrede, is missing entirely. And, of course, I don’t expect Rostropovich to add “baroquish” features: the last five chords are just that—dense, intense and long arpeggio chords.

II. Allemande (2’49”)

#3 among the fastest performances. Still, it does not feel extremely fast. However, Rostropovich moves forward with the unwavering steadiness of a steamroller, flattening all detail, and any trace of agogics and dance swaying. Strangely, despite the fast tempo, one does not feel bar lines, or a 2/2 or 4/4 pace (as annotated). Rather, the dominant rhythmic base is in quavers, i.e., pairs of semiquavers (!). This contributes to the impression of a mechanical, machine-like performance.

III. Courante (2’10”)

Another “steamroller” interpretation, I’m afraid. Machine-like, mechanic, devoid of rhythmic (let alone agogic) flexibility, relentlessly moving (and “sawing”) across phrase boundaries. No pleasure, indeed. He didn’t know any better? No, that’s not an excuse—this was recorded in 1991, after all!

IV. Sarabande (6’07”)

Epic. Rostropovich made this the centerpiece of the Suite (which it undoubtedly is), stretching it out to near-infinity, playing with “unlimited, incessant intensity”, putting all his soul into this music. And despite all the intensity, the beautiful sonority, he completely misses the character, the purpose of this composition.

Yes, there is dynamic differentiation—careful, even subtle at times, through some p segments, or occasional echo effects (e.g., the slurred quavers in bars 17 & 18). However, the tempo is so slow that the piece loses all rhythmic contours, essentially turning into a huge “blob”. This is not a late- or post-romantic elegy—rather, it is still meant to be a dance movement (albeit a slow one). Here, the listener loses the rhythmic orientation, any sense of the underlying 3/4 meter.

V. Menuet I — (1’20”)

Over-emphatic, heavy, schematic / rhythmically rigid, lacking differentiation in the articulation, devoid of agogics, let alone dance swaying. A Menuet? No way! Rather, a clumsy peasant dance. No fun for the listener.

VI. Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (1’58”)

It may also be rhythmically, rigid, schematic, lacking flexibility, and devoid of agogics—but, at least, it is gentler, softer, offering some intimacy and warmth.

VII. Gigue (2’53”)

Rostropovich plays all notes in the score (ignoring one or two “illegitimate” alterations)—but the articulation is consistently broad. There are no agogics, and very little dynamic differentiation. Rhythmically schematic, rigid, and occasionally, the artist adds a second “accent” on crotchets (like two tied quavers). With all this, the performance feels static, if not sometimes clumsy, and careless overall.

Total Duration: 21’26”

Rating: 3.5 / 2.5 / 2.5 / 3 / 2.5 / 3 / 2.5 = 2.79

Comment: Undoubtedly one of the great cellists of the 20th century. However, he should have stayed within his core repertoire, i.e., romantic, late romantic, and contemporary music. I can’t recommend his Bach recordings.


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

Anner Bylsma, 1992

Sony Classical, ℗/© 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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’30”)

Beautiful! A prime example of lively Klangrede, agogic and dynamic swaying, ranging from retained even occasionally hesitant motion up to agitated, almost exuberant acceleration, both in local motifs, as well as in large scale phrasing. All of course with very little, often hardly noticeable vibrato. A performance in one single, dramatic arch, with plenty of life in every bar!

The only part which I found a little less convincing is in the final chords. Anner Bylsma dissects these into ascending, sequential tones, and only the last two transitions are partially filled with small ornaments. After the build-up between the scales (bar 54ff) and bar 58, the static, ascending sequence of 3 tones makes the motion stop and kills the momentum. Not the best solution, in my opinion.

II. Allemande (4’43”)

Anner Bylsma’s second recording of the Allemande is substantially slower than his first one from 1979—#3 among the slowest performances, almost as slow as Petr Skalka. However, to his benefit I must say that he at least manages to retain the crotched-based rhythmic foundation, and at least traces of dance swaying. And the artist also forms longer phrases / arches. It’s still hardly an Allemande, though.

III. Courante (1’57”)

Here, at a pace that is distinctly faster than in his first recording from 1979, Bylsma was clearly aiming at “fast Courante, 3/4 time”. The tempo does feel a bit pushed, though, to the point where the sonority on individual tones is starting to suffer (occasional whirring strings): sound esthetics probably were regarded secondary. There are no skipped notes or the like, but there is a certain breathlessness in this performance, and not all motifs receive the same amount of attention.

IV. Sarabande (3’34”)

Interesting: in this comparison, the two fastest Sarabandes are at the same time also the two oldest historically informed (and historic) performances—both by Anner Bylsma. The more recent recording from 1992 is the more moderate of the two (for the first recording from 1979 see above). Yes, it does feel fluid relative to most or all slower ones—but it does not feel too fast. Rather, Anner Bylsma allows for breathing—most of the dance feeling comes from the breathing pauses and the carefully shaped phrases. Bylsma uses an incredibly differentiated articulation, whereby the quavers vary between gentle staccato and equally gentle détaché / quasi-legato. And in all this, the flow feels very natural, and full of Klangrede. Beautiful!

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

Menuet I

13 years after his first recording, Anner Bylsma arrived at a slightly slower pace with both Menuets, though maintaining the tempo relation (Menuet II slightly faster than Menuet I).

Menuet I is emphatic, engaged, swaying, the articulation detailed, careful, and full of verve (in the chords) and momentum in every bar.

Menuet II

In contrast, the second Menuet is subtle, peaceful, elegant, lucid, more intimate, but filled with inner joy. Lovely.

VII. Gigue (2’33”)

Compared to his older recording from 1979, Anner Bylsma moved to a slightly faster pace (the same happened in the Courante—in all other movements, the tempo in the latest recording is slower). Compared to most or all recent HIP interpretations, the articulation is broader (often approaching legato), more fluent / flowing, full of momentum, enthralling in the big phrasing arches. Staccato is used less frequently: rather, Anner Bylsma would let a note fade off, then directly attach the next note or motif. Occasionally, the tempo feels a bit pushed. And overall, the focus is more on the big phrases than on articulation in individual motifs.

Total Duration: 19’39”

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

Comment: An excellent HIP performance. It not only can still compete with all the recent HIP performances, but it even adds its own, unique perspectives / aspects. A complement to more recent HIP recordings, and worth a strong recommendation!


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

Jaap ter Linden, 1996

Harmonia mundi, ℗ 1997/1999
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’48”)

Dynamic and agogic swaying, plus the occasional, subtle jeu inégal. Jaap ter Linden’s articulation is relatively broad, often quasi-legato. Mostly, there is little or no vibrato. Where it is audible, though, it tends to be a little nervous. To me, the articulation feels a little too broad and intense, and in the phrasing, the broad arches dominate over the shaping of motifs. Yes, the dynamics are breathing—but there is no “space” between the arches. Occasionally, I wish there was more “room to breathe” for the listener. Somehow, this feels like a mix of a modern and a historically informed performance.

In the descant, the sonority of the instrument has a whirring component: somewhat bigger, but still almost like a viola. The chords in the five closing bars are linked with nice cadenzas (intense, not light, though).

II. Allemande (3’51”)

A HIP interpretation that mostly focuses on big, full sonority, big gestures—intimate / introverted moments are rare. Interestingly, Jaap ter Linden avoids the double-stop dissonance in the diminished fifth (tritonus) in bar 9. He omits the crotchet on a, the tritonus merely exists as a falling interval. Why then did Bach write that crotchet? And: as already in the Prélude, the performance often feels a little breathless.

III. Courante (2’22”)

The timing appears marginally faster than the viola da gamba interpretations—even Paolo Pandolfo‘s more fluid one. Yet, in this slowest of the cello performances, the Courante feels almost like a different piece. In Jaap ter Linden’s interpretation, the chords in bars 2, 6, 11 (arpeggio), 18, 22, and 27 (arpeggio) mark the clear “anchor points”, which the artist connects through the virtuosic semiquaver figures, starting with momentum that carriers him through the descent to the center point, then building up momentum again towards the next chord. At the anchor points, the artist always manages to carry over the momentum from one arch to the next one.

Jaap ter Linden’s playing is harmonious and relaxed, throughout the distinct agogic and dynamic swaying across these arches. No, there is no perceptible 3/4 dance motion at this pace—just the broad swaying across these broad arches. However, that’s in Bach’s composition: trying to produce 3/4 dance swaying would easily break / fragment the swaying motion across the big arches.

IV. Sarabande (4’43”)

Coming from the slow performances, this is #11 out of 26, close to the median tempo—and the first one with a distinct notion of “flow” and peaceful, calm dance swaying—far less static than all slower performances, also less introverted / reflective. The articulation is broad—often quasi-legato—but that fits the character of the movement in this interpretation. Huge, coherent arches / build-ups. Beautiful, singing, internally balanced.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’18”)

Menuet I

Firm, but not violent in the chords, with verve and emphasis, vibrant dance swaying: very good! My only quibble: in the second half, I sense some minor intonation issues. However, Jaap ter Linden performs without any vibrato, which makes this piece somewhat of a challenge.

Menuet II

The pace is the same, the character very different: gently swaying, harmonious, melodious, intimate—beautiful, indeed!

Besides Emmanuelle Bertrand (2019), Pierre Fournier (1960), Benedikt Kloeckner (2021), Vito Paternoster (1998), and Petr Skalka (2020), Jaap ter Linden is in a minority of artists that keep both Menuets at almost or exactly the same pace.

VII. Gigue (2’49”)

Emphatic performance, historically informed, but with a slight tendency to play minor détaché notes quasi-legato. Momentum, rhythmic / agogic and dynamic swaying, occasional (rare) superficialities on minor notes. Momentarily slightly noisy / loud—too “big” for a closing Gigue?

Total Duration: 20’51”

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

Comment: An early, historically informed performance—good, but not equally convincing across all movements.


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

Vito Paternoster, 1998

Magnatune.com, © 2003
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’41”)

Clearly a historically informed performance, with light, detailed articulation, rich dynamics and agogics. Particularly in the first part, up to bar 20, though, Vito Paternoster uses extremes in agogics (and articulation). Every motif, every little phrase stands on its own, separated by pauses (“gaps”) in the abbreviated long notes (crotchets and punctuated quavers). With this, the interpretation tends to feel fragmented, short of breath, with too much focus on the local expression / Klangrede. Paternoster’s occasional, extra ornaments further drive the focus onto individual motifs. In the build-up towards the fermata (bar 48), the performance gains more persistency and continuity.

Unlike in most other interpretations, the coda (bars 49ff) is not a final build-up to another climax. Rather, it forms multiple arches / phrases—again rather fragmented, e.g., through hesitations around the descending scales. Unlike all or most other artists, Vito Paternoster does not perform the final four chords. Rather, plays a free cadenza that loosely follows the harmonies defined by Bach’s chords. A bit “special”, maybe—too much liberty?

II. Allemande (3’17”)

To me, this feels too fast for a typical Allemande. The one point mentioned above, about the fragmented phrasing, also applies here. Articulation and phrasing are extremely light and vivid, and the artist can’t resist enriching even the first passes with a multitude of curly little ornaments (trills, turns, etc.). Sure, he is technically brilliant—but at this pace, the demisemiquavers in bar 9 sound superficial, inaccurate. In several ways, one can see this as “above the limit”. It still is fun and entertaining to listen to, though.

III. Courante (1’33”)

Fast tempo is almost the norm with this artist—this is the fastest performance, almost twice as fast as the slowest one. Sure, Vito Paternoster’s technical abilities are astounding—here, only Bruno Philippe can claim to be superior. However, despite all the agility, the lightness and (mostly) clarity in articulation—here, I get the feeling that the fast tempo was the primary objective, and details in expression / Klangrede are lacking. Too fast, also for the listener to grasp details.

IV. Sarabande (4’03”)

An extreme interpretation—too much, I’m afraid: there are over-punctuations, trills that accelerate like rockets, frequent, strong jeu inégal (extreme and arbitrary), alterations—not just in the repeats, but everywhere. I would accept a moderate / reasonable choice from all this in repeats—one could then see this as “interesting”. Here, however, I don’t find much of Bach’s Sarabande—it almost feels like a caricature. A danger with such frequent and extreme features is that they are rapidly “consumed”, and then become predictable—idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’59”)

Menuet I

With his prominent / excessive jeu inégal, the capricious double punctuations and jumpy, bouncing articulation, Vito Paternoster turns this Menuet into a fun Scherzo of sorts, if not a caricature that completely hides the Menuet dance character.

Menuet II

Persistent and extreme jeu inégal also here: capricious, joking—another caricature. Yes, it is fun to listen to—but also mannered, and certainly outside of the realm of Bach’s composition and imagination.

Besides Emmanuelle Bertrand (2019), Pierre Fournier (1960), Benedikt Kloeckner (2021), Petr Skalka (2020), and Jaap ter Linden (1996), Vito Paternoster is in a minority of artists that keep both Menuets at almost or exactly the same pace.

VII. Gigue (2’32”)

A tendency towards overblown upbeats (and other musical gestures), as well as exaggerated dynamics (as well as agogics), bordering on mannered. Yes, it’s entertaining and fun to listen to, never boring, let alone uniform or too polished—but…

Total Duration: 18’06”

Rating: 4 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 4 / 4 / 4 = 3.86

Comment: Historically informed, true—but with exaggerations and extremes in dynamics, articulation / agogics. Fun and entertaining—but hardly a recommendation as the first, let alone the only recording in a collection.


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

Pieter Wispelwey, 1998

Channel Classics, ℗/© 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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’25”)

In my listening sequence from slow to fast(er), this is #21 out of 26—we are now definitely in the domain of the more fluid performances. And so far, this is the “lightest” of the interpretations: Pieter Wispelwey consequently keeps long peak notes (quavers & up) short, often after a brief crescendo, such as to connect that note with the next phrase. The artist connects longer semiquaver segments (e.g., bars 6 – 8, or 9 – 12, etc.) to fluid, agile chains, forming longer phrases than most or all the slower performances. Also, the dynamics are varied / evolve in larger phrases. Not surprisingly with this artist, this is one of the few interpretations that fill the final chords with lively arpeggiando.

One could say that there is less “local unrest”, as the phrasing / Klangrede (agogics and dynamics) in motifs appear integrated into the larger phrases / “dramatic units”. In a way, the movement appears more compact, as a single dramatic unit. Does the movement have less weight in this recording? Maybe—but it doesn’t state anywhere that this must be a “big” and/or dramatic piece.

II. Allemande (4’09”)

Compared to his later, 2012 recording, the 1998 performance is very close in tempo, just very slightly faster. The pitch is half a tone higher (a’ = 415 Hz), i.e., what people usually associate with baroque music (however, one should keep in mind that at Bach’s time, a large variety of pitches were in use).

Here, the focus is more on flow, the performance is less “radical” in terms of Klangrede (“speaking” articulation, phrasing / breathing, dynamics / dance rhythm / swaying). One can clearly tell how remarkably Pieter Wispelwey’s interpretation has evolved over 14 years: this is excellent, but I clearly prefer the newer recording.

III. Courante (2’18”)

The Courante in the first one of Pieter Wispelwey’s recordings is among the “slower” cello performances: the tempo is close to Jaap ter Linden’s, the timing also close to Pablo Casals’ from 1936. Yet, there are major differences: unlike Jaap ter Linden, Pieter Wispelwey uses very light articulation throughout, the détaché notes appear as light, often dry staccato. This makes the slurred motifs stand out even more. The same holds true for the “anchor notes / chords, which the artist often makes stand out with a brief but pronounced “belly accent”.

Pieter Wispelwey’s agogic “bandwidth” is smaller: the tempo more even, there is less agogic swaying between the anchor notes / chords. However, the lighter articulation makes the movement appear more virtuosic, the momentum more persistent.

IV. Sarabande (5’11”)

In his first recording, Pieter Wispelwey’s tempo is identical to David Watkin’s—yet, there are major differences. Wispelwey’s articulation is lighter in general, but even resolute in some instances of the theme head, occasionally even over-punctuating. Less lyrical, but more expressive, “outspoken” in dynamics and articulation, more playing with “local tension”.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’09”)

Menuet I

Interestingly, Pieter Wispelwey’s 1998 timing for the two Menuets is identical to Anner Bylsma’s first (1979) recording. Wispelwey’s articulation and sonority is far less harsh / rough, the agogic swaying more pronounced. On the other hand, the approach in articulation and phrasing, even the rhythmic contours are quite similar. “Anner Bylsma without the rough edges”…

Menuet II

As with Bylsma, the second Menuet is more fluid. However, the swaying is again (much) more pronounced, the interpretation more relaxed, breathing, and there is playfulness. Beautiful!

VII. Gigue (2’52”)

The Gigue timing in Pieter Wispelwey’s first recording is identical to that of Juris Teichmanis (and Isang Enders), and there are certainly similarities between these approaches. However, even though absolute sound esthetics are not Wispelwey’s goal either, the experience with his interpretation is infinitely more pleasant / enjoyable than Teichmanis’.

Total Duration: 21’04”

Rating: 4.5 / 4.5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 = 4.36

Comment: One of my favorite HIP recordings from the past century. However, time has moved on—and by now, I very much prefer the artist’s more recent recording from 2012.


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

Glossa Platinum, © 2004
Artist: Paolo Pandolfo (*1964, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Viola da gamba by Lorenzo Carcassi (1737 – 1775), Florence, 1792
Pitch: a’ = 415 Hz
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’52”)

In Paolo Pandolfo’s hands, the Prélude is so rich in expression, down to every single motif and below, that the artist feels very little need to add his usual, rich palette of “extras”, such as second voices, chords, and the like. Except for a few inverted mordents (the first one in bar 18), and a few liberties in the slurring, Pandolfo plays the score as is. And what an interpretation this is—with an unmatched richness in expression / Klangrede (agogics, articulation, dynamics). The beginning is almost somber, introverted, retained—but soon, the warm sonority, the multitude of colors of the viola da gamba opens up a little universe on its own.

After the fermata in bar 48, the p marks the beginning of a cadenza-like coda, with even greater agogic freedom (but otherwise staying truthful to the notation). Not surprisingly, though, Paolo Pandolfo takes the final bars as an opportunity to demonstrate “proper” arpeggiando on 7 strings: beautiful!

II. Allemande (3’28”)

I’m listening to this after Marianne Dumas’ 2016 recording, with similar overall timing. However, that’s where the similarities end. Where in comparison the latter feels relentless and loud, Paolo Pandolfo’s interpretation reflects the intimate nature of the viola da gamba: albeit fluid, the performance feels relaxed, playful even, the articulation light and highly differentiated, the tone never loud in the semiquaver line.

However, that’s Pandolfo: he also is exploiting extra capabilities that his instrument offers. Namely, he is expanding most chords to make use of the extra strings and the bass sonority. And he is adding numerous extra chords, wherever he sees an opportunity (or a necessity, to suit his vision). These chords form strong, prominent accents: big, often even violent gestures (though not nearly as percussive as Pablo Casals‘ chords). These chords structure the flow, the phrases. Between these “cornerstones”, the semiquaver flow is strongly structured, through pronounced agogics, including the occasional jeu inégal: Klangrede at the extreme. Fascinating—but don’t expect “pure Bach”!

III. Courante (2’25”)

For possible explanations for the two gambists in this comparison selecting a moderate tempo for the Courante see my remarks on Myriam Rignol’s performance. At his pace, though, Paolo Pandolfo is much closer to a typical (slower) cello performance. With this, the flow, the phrasing feel both more fluid and much more natural. Of course, the sonority, articulation / Klangrede (the “dialect”) is entirely and undeniably that of the viola da gamba, the musical flow in motifs and phrases more harmonious, gentler than in many (most) cello interpretations.

And yet, Paolo Pandolfo stays close to Bach’s original text. His main adaptations feature occasional, discreet expansions of double-stop intervals to triple-stop chords, as well as inverted mordents on the central note in the turn-like motifs consisting of 7 slurred semiquavers (e.g.: bars 13, 14, 15, 29, 31, 31). There are several other inverted mordents on semiquavers. However, all the extra ornaments appear entirely natural—almost as if they were Bach’s own.

IV. Sarabande (5’23”)

Dark, somber, measured, very calmly stepping forward, solemn, pensive, completely introverted, unpretentious: the music alone is a masterpiece. The interpretation on the viola da gamba, though, is simply astounding! The below-average pace by no means implies a static performance. Rather, Paolo Pandolfo uses agogics—jeu inégal in particular—to create swaying and tension, down to the smallest of motifs. And, of course, he adds a few extra chords (or expands existing ones), and extra, discreet ornaments / minor alterations, without overloading Bach’s composition. Slowly, but steadily, he builds up (moderate) volume to form broad dynamic arches—consequently, but with patience and calm.

At the end of the movement, Paolo Pandolfo repeats bars 25 – 28 (starting with the ascending scale in bar 24), as a kind of “echo coda” that releases the tension from the preceding climax. That addition is so natural and integrated that it likely goes unnoticed by many listeners.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’34”)

To those who might claim that interpretations on a viola da gamba are “not proper Bach”: wrong! For one, Bach was no stranger to the viola da gamba—he just didn’t write solo works for this instrument. Yes, it is true that Paolo Pandolfo does expand the scope in Bach’s Cello Suites—however, here at least, his interpretation is not the most extreme “non-Bach” recording. For the most striking proof, check Vito Paternoster’s cello performance for a recording that really is “off the Bach track”! Sorry, I felt a need to defend Pandolfo’s interpretation!

Menuet I

The first Menuet is very fluid—but not the fastest of the performances. The opening part (8 bars) is light, with pronounced dance swaying, very light in articulation, but dark, full-bodied in the sonority. Pandolfo remains close to the notation, just (moderately) expanding some of the chords. After the double bar line, the sonority opens, brightens through the descant strings: so colorful, so full of life—beautiful!

Menuet II

Also, in the second Menuet, Paolo Pandolfo stays close to Bach’s original text. However, here, the artist switches to a markedly faster pace—the fastest in this comparison, by far. And the result is remarkable: not the introverted, intimate, mellow, soft intermezzo as in other interpretations, but a lively, agile, and joyful dance. This may be somewhat outside the scope of a Menuet, but a dance it is, indeed: enthralling, fascinating, ravishing, adorable, stunning, and irresistible!

VII. Gigue (2’56”)

For the most part so far (excepting the Allemande), Paolo Pandolfo refrained from his “excursions” into the rich world of viola da gamba. Here, however, he lets his talent loose, offering a “viola da gamba feast” featuring “Bach à la française“.

The interpretation features extra, beautiful, and fitting ornaments, and—most prominently—a truly orchestral setting, strongly rhythmically structured, using extra and expanded chords. Enthralling does not fully describe the experience: it sounds like a full consort of viols, if not even like a festive baroque orchestral setting, with timpani and brass instruments, a true firework of colors and sounds. Yes, it certainly is “beyond Bach” (even though the original text of Bach’s Gigue is always clearly present)—but the experience is fabulous, unique, and fascinating.

Total Duration: 20’40”

Rating: 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 4.5 / 5 / 5 = 4.79

Comment: “Bach purists” may disagree with my rating. However, my comments & judgements are not (or not only) meant to cover musicological aspects. Just as much I consider the fun, the pleasure of listening to a specific recording. I am usually critical of performances that sound / feel like a caricature. This is not caricature. It is not genuine / “native” / original baroque music. However, ever since I know this recording, it always has offered me tremendous listening pleasure. Strong, special recommendation!


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

Steven Isserlis, 2005

hyperion, ℗ 2007
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’43”)

Steven Isserlis’ agogics and his musical flow largely follow the big arches. “Local” agogics inside bars / motifs (Klangrede) is used rather selectively—the large phrases dominate. They often feel rather relentless. Vibrato is almost everywhere, and a little nervous in comparison to most others, but not exceedingly obtrusive. Overall, a modern interpretation: typical HIP performance leave more “room to breathe”.

The coda features livelier agogics, more differentiation, less permanent intensity. The final bars, however, are rather disappointing: the five chords are just that—a brief arpeggio, then staying on the top note for every chord. Static. And the top notes of course are not melody—why? It’s all about the harmonies, after all!

II. Allemande (2’33”)

Why so fast? This is the fastest performance, clearly faster than Bruno Philippe. The latter still manages to let the 4/4 meter prevail—Isserlis’ performance is in entire bars. Where’s the Allemande? And where the dance character? Yes, Steven Isserlis is a master of his instrument, he has no technical problems with the fast pace. However, occasionally, the performance does feel somewhat summary, if not even superficial in details. There is a sense of relentlessness, of unwavering pushing forward, without ever leaving time to breathe, or time to indulge in Klangrede in details, motifs.

And: compared to typical HIP performances Isserlis’ approach feels still bound to traditional “schools”, e.g., in the articulation in general, and in the (virtually ubiquitous) vibrato. The latter is rarely intrusive, though.

III. Courante (2’02”)

The overall timing is identical to Petr Skalka’s. Isserlis’ agogics are less extreme, less pronounced in general, the focus more on a relentless forward motion. Isserlis leaves little room to breathe between phrases, leaving the impression of a certain breathlessness. Sure, the artist articulates carefully also in detail—however, the drive forward tends to dominate over local Klangrede.

IV. Sarabande (3’56”)

A good, fluid tempo, with limited agogics / dance swaying. A solid, good interpretation with little or inconspicuous vibrato. Minor quibbles: the uniformity (and predictability) in the accelerating trills. Broad dynamic arches / phrases.

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

Menuet I

The strong, emphatic gestures (particularly in the arpeggio chords) appear too big for the modesty of a Menuet dance movement. Too pretentious, limited / lacking dance swaying, and the tempo also appears at the upper limit.

Menuet II

Much better, more modest, swaying agogics, relaxed. Maybe a little too polished. And the extra trill with acciaccatura on the final note is unnecessary, mannered—a suitable transition back to the da capo would have been preferable over breaking the short silence with the sudden, explosive first chord of Menuet I.

VII. Gigue (2’33”)

Few idiosyncrasies, such as the extra-snappy upbeats in the main motif. Light, technically clean / flawless (of course). Next to up-to-date HIP performances, this now feels a tad (too) polished, and the mordent on the final note (as well as some of the other, extra ornaments) is unnecessary and a bit mannered, “put-on”.

Total Duration: 17’32”

Rating: 3.5 / 4 / 4 / 4 / 3.5 / 4 / 4 = 3.86

Comment: Steven Isserlis’ interpretation is technically flawless—certainly an excellent non-HIP performance on a modern instrument / bow—and recommended as such. Polished, some idiosyncrasies—the artist isn’t a specialist on baroque music.


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

Jean-Guihen Queyras, 2007

harmonia mundi, ℗ 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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’36”)

A wonderfully equilibrated, well-balanced interpretation: careful articulation, dynamic and agogic swaying in local phrases, but at the same time keeping an eye on the big arches / development. An interpretation with strong HIP influence: harmonious, inconspicuous / selective vibrato, a continuous build-up with compelling flow up to the fermata in bar 48. The articulation varies between light in soft segments to intense / dense (yet elastic) around climaxes.

The coda (bars 49ff) forms another, compelling build-up towards the chord in bar 54, then again through the scales into the chord in bar 59. There is no arpeggiando in the final bars, but Jean-Guihen Queyras forms two pairs of chords, each linked with a descending figure—a very nice, convincing solution!

II. Allemande (3’55”)

Superficially, the beginning close to a “classic” interpretation—clear, but not demonstrating extra-light articulation—just discharging motifs in near-legato articulation. However, the beauty of this interpretation is in the details. There’s the very selective vibrato: inconspicuous, but harmonious and effective, predominantly on quavers and dotted quavers, not necessarily on peak notes.

More remarkable than that is where the artist does not use vibrato: one such instance is in bar 9, where the fifth e-b (with trill) and the subsequent diminished fifth (tritonus) d♯-a are left “naked”, i.e., without attempt to hide or soften the bleak nature of the empty fifth, or the tritonus dissonance through vibration. The subsequent demisemiquaver passage feels like a hybrid between emphasis and ornament. Such features make this interpretation highly interesting!

There is one extra ornament (a trill in the middle of bar 6), plus an extra chord in the middle of bar 3—interestingly, the latter in the first pass only.

The remarks on the Prélude of course apply here as well: a well-equilibrated interpretation with careful, diligent dynamics, agogics, and phrasing.

III. Courante (1’49”)

Astounding virtuosity—very fast, but always clean in the articulation. At this pace, though, there isn’t much room for differentiation in articulation, let alone Klangrede. It’s a modern interpretation, though, not aiming to be HIP. Technically masterful, with occasional “uncontrolled” outbursts on end notes, and a feeling of “driven”. However, Jean-Guihen Queyras retains control in the articulation, throughout the movement. Still, “careful” and “subtle” are categories that don’t apply here.

IV. Sarabande (4’07”)

Jean-Guihen Queyras is one of just three artists who considered the manuscript reading for bars 25 and 26—see above for details. Some may regard the manuscript reading as questionable, and it appears that Queyras did not want to make a clear decision for either of the alternate readings. So, in the first pass, he follows performance tradition and the printed editions, performing bars 25/26 as (a-b-c’-b-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c♯’-d’). In the repeat, however, he follows Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript, playing (a-b-c’-b♭-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c-d’). Among all the other artists, Juris Teichmanis and Petr Skalka perform the manuscript version (in both passes), all others follow tradition / the printed editions.

The timing is identical to Pablo Casals‘—and there are also similarities in the general approach. Unlike Casals, Jean-Guihen Queyras uses very little, if any vibrato. Apart from the one reservation above, I find this a beautiful, harmonious interpretation: careful, unpretentious.

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

Menuet I

Vibrant, strong / big gestures, firm “statements”, expressive, decisive articulation, rhythmically firm, but flexible (never rigid), elastic, full of tension, dancing, strong narrative. Enthralling!

Menuet II

Not excessively sweet or intimate—rather beautifully harmonious, rounded, flowing, strong dance swaying, careful and detailed in the articulation. Masterful!

VII. Gigue (2’33”)

A very nice, even excellent interpretation, careful and detailed in articulation and dynamics. The only reservations that I have relative to my favorite HIP recordings: some lack of “bite” in the articulation, and a tendency to push the tempo. A slightly more moderate pace would have allowed for even more details in articulation / Klangrede—and the listener would have more time to enjoy these.

Total Duration: 19’00”

Rating: 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 4.5 = 4.64

Comment: My favorite recording on a modern (or modernized) instrument—a strong recommendation, particularly for listeners who don’t favor gut strings / baroque bow.


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

Aparté / harmonia mundi, ℗/© 2011
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’57”)

I’m listening to this after Benedict Kloeckner, which features (almost) the same overall timing. In many aspects, though, Ophélie Gaillard offers a HIP interpretation: there is less vibrato, and the articulation is lighter, often more détaché. The artists lets longer notes (quavers, even more so crotchets) grow with a mostly subtle swelling. Occasionally / momentarily, I had the impression that this swelling is “enough”, i.e., could maybe be a little more discreet? Ophélie Gaillard’s swaying agogics are harmonious, often inconspicuous. More prominent: the drive, the momentum that the artist builds up towards the fermata in bar 48: nice!

The subsequent part begins gently (in accordance with the p annotation) and calm. The artist does not aim to regain momentum towards the end. Rather, the coda (?) feels relaxed, growing into a certain playfulness: the second descending scale in bar 55 ends in a light spiccato, and in the last scale there is a little ornament. Bars 57/58 feature multiple, playful ornaments. Finally, some the closing chords are linked with nice, inventive little cadenzas. Purists may find the ornaments in bars 56 – 58 inappropriate additions—to me, they are completely in line with the character of the coda in this interpretation. And they all are absolutely in Bach’s style.

II. Allemande (3’44”)

At almost exactly the average pace, Ophélie Gaillard again offers a nice interpretation—light in the articulation. Maybe momentarily, it feels a little breathless. My main quibble is with the pronounced (and unnecessary) “belly dynamics” on the tritonus in bar 9, and on the final note in the first part. In repeats, the artist adds several extra ornaments, ranging from natural / inconspicuous, up to original / inventive / highly personal. Not all of these may be to everybody’s taste.

III. Courante (2’06”)

Very nice. Differentiated and clear in articulation, nicely swaying agogics, very harmonious in the phrasing, the transitions between parts and phrases. Fluid, but never feeling too relentless, allowing for a natural breath.

IV. Sarabande (4’15”)

I really like the tone, the sonority, the articulation in general, as well as at the level of motifs. Yet, I’m left with some slight dissatisfaction—primarily with the tempo. Could it be that “arriving here” from slower performances now turns into a disadvantage? Not really, as the impression persisted when I returned to this recording after a night’s pause. The timing is still close to the overall average. Yet, I often feel some unrest, primarily in the quaver passages. This leaves some tension, a sense of (slight) urgency that (to me) does not fit the nature of a slow dance movement. And I could not say that I sense real dance swaying. Also, there is little space to breathe between phrases.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’50”)

Menuet I

A good, fluid tempo, harmonious swaying, natural articulation. Minor quibbles only—the occasional “belly-shaped” accent, and occasionally the chords appearing to hinder the (dance) flow.

Menuet II

Fluid, light, natural, swaying flow, very much integrated into the two instances of Menuet I (rather than forming a pronounced contrast—a missed opportunity?).

VII. Gigue (2’47”)

Firm, rhythmic swaying, truthful to the notation (e.g., slurs, drones in bars 15, 17, and 19), expressive in tone and sonority, full of momentum / drive, enthralling.

Total Duration: 19’49”

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

Comment: A very good recording overall. Not my top favorite, but still worth a recommendation.


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

Pieter Wispelwey, 2012

Evil Penguin Records Classic, 2017
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’22”)

14 years after his first recording, Pieter Wispelwey’s overall timing remained almost identical. The phrasing between the high peak notes is very similar, but now appears far more natural and harmonious. The articulation is still light. However, at almost the same, fluid pace, there is now way more Klangrede, i.e., local differentiation, a richer and more detailed narrative. And yet, the movement does not lose cohesion—quite to the contrary, it is the most compelling performance so far! Again, the final bars are performed as arpeggiando—lighter and more agile than in the previous recording: less affirmative, and “leaving the door open” for the following movements.

II. Allemande (4’15”)

From the timing alone, this looks like one of the slower performances (#5 out of 26). Yet, thanks to his diligent, light articulation, agogics and phrasing, this does not feel (too) slow at all. Rather, one can clearly feel the crotchet pace, the phrases aren’t excessively long, the performance is breathing beautifully. It is a solemn Allemande, full of Klangrede—marvelous! The low pitch in this recording (a full tone below the modern pitch of a’ = 440 Hz) ideally supports the peaceful (but never sluggish) flow in this movement. There are a few extra, small ornaments, even in the first passes—but these are totally inconspicuous, completely “integrated” into Bach’s music.

III. Courante (1’59”)

Fascinating! The ideal balance between fluid tempo, virtuosity, attention to detail (Klangrede) and lively, swaying agogics and dynamics. Momentum and “breathing” phrases that never feel pushed / overly driven: excellent!

IV. Sarabande (4’35”)

Highly interesting, and unique! In his newer interpretation, Pieter Wispelwey is spot-on at the average pace—yet the interpretation resembles none of the others. There are several “modes”: the “grippy” punctuated opening motif (over-punctuated on the first note, inégal in the two semiquavers at the end of the bar), and intensely singing cantilenas in the legato passages. Finally, there are calm, stepping staccato (détaché) quavers—as if to mark minor dance steps: calm, dry like a metronome—yet not static, but elastic, filled with tension, even suspense. Simply superb!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’48”)

Menuet I

Expressive, strong arpeggio gestures, light and springy articulation, momentum, pronounced dance swaying, marked and capricious end chords—one of the (if not the) most characterful interpretations: a true dance!

Menuet II

A tad faster, very light in the articulation, but equally springy and swaying. A little more modest in the dynamics, more complement than aiming for stark contrast. Masterful, hard to beat!

VII. Gigue (2’36”)

So rich in Klangrede: articulation, agogics, dynamics, colors—and all without exaggerations, just a well-balanced interpretation—what more can one wish for? A little example: Pieter Wispelwey ends the Gigue (and the Suite) with the same mordent on the last note as Steven Isserlis—here, however, it appears entirely natural and “integrated”…

Total Duration: 19’36”

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

Comment: Not surprisingly, this is my top favorite!


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

Isang Enders, 2012

Edel Germany / Berlin Classics, ℗/© 2014
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’04”)

A modern interpretation in all aspects—modern bow & strings, virtually perfect playing, smooth articulation and sonority. There is local “breathing”, as defined in Bach’s implicit phrasing. However, the dominant feature is in large, dynamic, and agogic arches. Local expression / Klangrede, i.e., local “colors”, the “talking” through articulation and the interaction between bow and strings are all subordinated to the “great picture”, the overall flow. Together with the fastest pace in the comparison, this makes up for a neutral, “aseptic” performance. The coda (bars 49ff) is barely setting itself apart from the main part of the Prélude, and the rapid arpeggiando in the final bars does not compensate for the lack of atmosphere and mood in this interpretation.

II. Allemande (3’41”)

Technically perfect, clean, virtually flawless, the articulation very careful and well-thought-out. However, to me, this lacks atmosphere: too much focus on perfection. There is agogic swaying—but mainly in entire bars, and in bigger phrases. At the level of motifs, the flow isn’t really swaying, but rather (often) relentless, often with a pull forward. The movement lack a certain lightness, relaxedness, rhythmic flexibility to make this a real Allemande, or a dance movement in general.

III. Courante (2’05”)

I can’t say that this interpretation is entirely mechanical. However, beyond technical mastery, the phrasing, the closures to phrases, the transitions between phrases all sound rather schematic, often abrupt / strict (that “drumbeat ending”!). There’s not much musical life in this, I’m afraid.

IV. Sarabande (5’30”)

Tempo-wise not too far from Mstislav Rostropovich. At least, Isang Enders uses shorter, “dryer” articulation, so the melodic stream feels more structured—there is maybe even a distant “scent” of the underlying meter. There are dynamic arches, phrasing. On the other hand, there’s very little in terms of agogics, and the rhythm often feels mechanic, occasionally devoid of expression. Technically perfect, maybe, but…

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’58”)

Menuet I

Technically good, but somewhat sterile. Limited agogics—rather schematic, formal, with the pronounced arpeggio chords disrupting the flow. Why the overblown climax and end notes with “belly dynamics”?

Fun observation: there is a rattling noise in the first chord (second pass only)—a woodpecker in the distance?

Menuet II

Light, sleek, springy, elegant, pleasant, teasing, a little capricious, fun, swaying, never overblown: the best movement so far.

VII. Gigue (3’07”)

Technically near perfect, with an occasional tendency towards austere sonority (staccato), despite the modern bow and strings. At times, the interpretation feels “too clean”—in the sense of “constructed”, “too well-thought out”, “too predictable”. That also applies to the rhythmic swaying, which occasionally appears to lack the “human touch”, the natural breathing.

Total Duration: 20’25”

Rating: 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 3 / 3.5 / 4.5 / 3.5 = 3.57

Comment: A modern interpretation, technically at a very high level, but (emotionally) pale in comparison to recent, historically informed interpretations.


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

David Watkin, 2013

Resonus, ℗/© 2015
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’19”)

The tempo is fluid, about the same as Pieter Wispelwey‘s, and also the large-scale phrasing is similar. However, there are substantial differences in the “local language”, i.e., articulation, agogics, Klangrede. David Watkin observes / uses more slurs, a gentler, more fluent articulation in general—the focus is more on the flow in the bigger phrases. Notes are more “connected”, yet still discharged, “light”. Not as radical as Pieter Wispelwey, one could say.

The focus on compelling flow and large(r) phrases is most obvious in the coda, which forms a single arch towards the final chords. The latter are left as such but linked through suitable little cadenzas / transition motifs. In this context, that seems the most natural option.

II. Allemande (3’40”)

Wonderful in all aspects! A fluid tempo, clearly above average, but always relaxed. Pronounced agogic / rhythmic, and dynamic swaying, careful, detailed (never meticulous / academic, of course) articulation—Klangrede at its best! The dominant swaying is in entire bars (the “big gestures”), with plenty of “room” for “talking” / local expression in motifs: the 4/4 meter is sufficiently present, even though secondary.

III. Courante (2’04”)

Excellent also here: fluid (spot-on average timing), beautifully and freely swaying, broad arches, harmonious and natural in phrasing and transitions, Klangrede in all this, stress-free / relaxed, colorful, and offering a rich narration.

IV. Sarabande (5’13”)

Slow, broadly swaying flow, calm, peaceful breath, beautiful, broad arches, selective, calmly swaying vibrato (long notes only). Marvelous, rounded sonority, harmonious. Never, ever lets the pace run away—unlimited patience!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (4’00”)

Menuet I

A natural tempo, unpretentious in sonority and attitude, persistent dance swaying (highlighting the origin of the Menuet as a folk dance?). Beautiful.

Menuet II

Just a tiny bit slower than the first Menuet—the difference is hardly noticeable. The interpretation feels almost shy, retracted, introverted, soft, gently swaying, modest, yet joyful, serene. Marvelous!

Together with Myriam Rignol (2020, viola da gamba) and Petr Skalka (2020), David Watkin is in a small group of artists who perform the da capo instance of the first Menuet with both repeats.

VII. Gigue (2’54”)

Excellent—just very minor quibbles: likely due to a close microphone placement, the whirring sound of the gut strings occasionally tends to dominate. Rare, excessive gestures around climaxes / phrase endings (with unnecessarily swelling dynamics). The tempo feels very natural.

Total Duration: 21’10”

Rating: 5 / 5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 4.5 = 4.79

Comment: One of the best, historically informed performances. Strongly recommended.


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

Thomas Demenga, 2014

ECM New Series, ℗/© 2017
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’56”)

Beautiful—and a proof that expressive playing is possible without noticeable vibrato (one needs to listen carefully to detect the rare, very subtle vibration)! Thomas Demenga uses very rich agogics: every descending motif is used to pick up momentum, which carries the artist through the next, contrariwise motion. Every single motif is “talking”, telling a story—Klangrede by the book! And with every swaying motion, the interpretation gradually picks up momentum, tension, across dynamic waves, up to the fermata in bar 48.

Only with the p in bar 49ff, the tension relaxes through the descending scales, just to build up again momentarily, for the final chords. In the latter, Thomas Demenga puts a fermata on the first chord, then follows up with beautiful little cadenzas on the next two chords, ending in a long trill into the final D minor chord. Bar 62 (A major) consists of the trill on c♯’ only. That’s legitimate, as A and e were already part of the chord in bar 61.

II. Allemande (3’43”)

Beautiful again: a fluid tempo on the semiquavers. This makes it easy for the listener to feel the crotchet-based meter (the “dance pace”). At the same time, Thomas Demenga’s interpretation exhibits beautiful, harmonious swaying in bigger (2 – 4-bar) arches. And in these arches, he appears to tell stories, though dynamics and rich agogics. Not surprisingly, the artist is adding a set of extra ornaments to the repeats: inverted mordents, turns, short trills, occasionally also transition notes. All these feel natural, fit nicely into the music.

III. Courante (1’59”)

The overall timing is identical to Pieter Wispelwey’s second recording from 2012—so, from that alone there are some similarities—as also in the approach to phrasing / agogics. Thomas Demenga’s interpretation is a tad smoother, less “radical”. On the other hand, even at this fluid, virtuosic pace, Demenga (not surprisingly) manages to add a set of “little ornaments” (first repeat, and in both passes of the second part). These are not conspicuous, but all well-integrated and adapted to Bach’s “language”. And not even these extra notes ever make the interpretation feel overly driven, pushed. Excellent!

IV. Sarabande (3’49”)

Fluid—not exceedingly fast, not pretentious, calm, at the same time with a very slight “scent of unrest”—which I attribute to the artist’s view of a (slow) dance movement. I certainly like the agogic and dynamic swaying, and Thomas Demenga’s occasional extra ornaments—original and very personal, as usual with this artist.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’01”)

Menuet I

Verve, momentum, tension, strong(est) agogic and dynamic swaying, resolute chords, but never harsh or coarse. Irresistible, enthralling!

Menuet II

Beauty, diligence, care, warmth, love, intimacy, attention, caressing—ravishing, enchanting! The few, nice transition ornaments / fioriture are the “icing on the cake”.

VII. Gigue (2’45”)

The more I listen to this, the more I realize how much attention and care Thomas Demenga devotes to every detail in articulation, down to every motif and note. Far from an over-polished performance, nothing is ever mechanical, let alone superficial, and every phrase is dancing, full of expression. And the few extra ornaments in the repeats defeat the slightest signs of austerity in this music!

Total Duration: 19’12”

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

Comment: Clearly one of my favorite performances—strongly recommended!


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

Marianne Dumas, 2016

Urania Records, ℗/© 2018
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’16”)

I could not pinpoint features in this interpretation that would make me conclude that the artist is holding the bow in “viol style”, i.e., the right hand below the bow, hence inverting up- and downstrokes. There are peculiarities about her articulation, though. For one, the artist’s détaché articulation is very broad and dense/intense, close to legato. I prefer lighter articulation. Then, there is a crescendo or Nachdrücken on most, if not all longer notes (many quavers, but especially punctuated quavers and crotchets). If that happens once or twice in a movement, that may be acceptable. Here, however, it is done persistently—and that feels like mannerism, or rather like a bad habit.

My other reservation here is that the music doesn’t breathe. There is agogics—but there is no time left for breathing between phrases. Rather, the next phrase always follows immediately. Despite the very moderate tempo (the slowest of the performances, except for Pablo de Naverán‘s extreme), this creates a feeling of rest- and breathlessness, which makes me feel impatient very soon.

On the brighter side: the final bars are filled with arpeggiando, which is a relief next to Pablo de Naverán’s static performance.

II. Allemande (3’39”)

My primary observations are with the rather regular, often almost uniform flow within phrases, and, as already in the Prélude, a certain relentlessness, i.e., not enough “room to breathe”, or time for a moment of rest between phrases. Along with this, there are barely soft, more introverted moments / motifs / phrases. Also, dance swaying is very limited, if noticeable at all. Furthermore, there is a somewhat irritating tendency towards pronounced swelling in all longer notes (quavers, crotchets). An unfortunate consequence of the “inverted bowing”?

III. Courante (2’15”)

The last point above also applies to this movement. The idea may have been to “pull” the music & the listener into the next phrase. To me, however, this is mostly a disruption in the flow. As for the semiquaver lines: here, the primary impression is that of “very busy”, and of lacking dynamic differentiation. The overall effect is one of incessant “babbling”, of lacking contrast in dynamics, missing “breath” (breathing as alternation between tension and relaxing): “too much life”…

IV. Sarabande (4’17”)

The CD cover states: “Rediscovering the baroque technique“. The Sarabande makes me wonder how much of a rediscovery this really is. Yes, it sounds very different from the other cello interpretations. However, sadly, the most prominent feature of this Sarabande is that virtually every note (from quavers up) features swelling dynamics, often actually Nachdrücken. This occasionally happens in other interpretations, too—but never as prominently and persistently as here. Unfortunately, once the listener’s ear is “hooked onto this feature”, it is hard, if not impossible to ignore it.

The “inverted bowing” may contribute to this, i.e., I can see that viol style bowing is more prone to such idiosyncrasies, which I regard a flaw, a bad habit. However, neither of the two interpretations on viola da gamba “proper” (Paolo Pandolfo, Myriam Rignol) shows such tendencies. And both these artists obviously use viol (“inverted”) bowing technique.

Marianne Dumas reduces all trills to simpler inverted mordents, with or without an extra grace note.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’37”)

Menuet I

An apparent consequence of the “inverted bowing” lies in the rather mellow articulation, the broad (“anti-percussive”) chord arpeggios. Occasionally, the articulation is close to legato, making the instrument sound almost like a hurdy-gurdy. Overall, the interpretation feels rather static, lacking a persistent dance swaying. In addition, I also have reservations about the intonation purity.

Menuet II

The second Menuet—a tad faster—feels more natural. However, also here, the articulation feels rather (too) mellow, lacking rhythmic contours, i.e., there is a tendency to soften rhythmic pattern.

VII. Gigue (2’41”)

The movement with the clearest, most percussive articulation in this interpretation. The sonority is occasionally a tad aggressive. To accommodate “inverted bowing”, the artist made some changes to the slurring. It feels OK but is sometimes a bit confusing when heard next to a regular cello interpretation. What irritates me more, though, is the occasional tendency for the tempo to run away. In concert, this may be OK, but in a recording, it feels like insufficient / negligent tempo control.

Total Duration: 20’45”

Rating: 3 / 3 / 3.5 / 2.5 / 2.5 / 3 / 3 = 2.93

Comment: “Inverted bowing”, i.e., “the rediscovered baroque technique”, as the artist calls it, may be an interesting experiment—but one that doesn’t win me over. From this interpretation, I very much doubt that Bach considered (let alone used) such technique in his cello suites.


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

Kim Kashkashian, 2017 — Viola

ECM New Series, ℗/© 2018
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’10”)

I’m listening to this after Myriam Rignol‘s interpretation on the viola da gamba—both these are virtually identical in the timing. There are strong similarities in their very pronounced agogic swaying—although Kim Kashkashian selects slightly different phrase endpoints. Kim Kashkashian’s tempo is a tad faster, but here, the broadening around climaxes and between phrases is more pronounced. In the last five bars, the artist links the arpeggiated chords with garlands and variable other little transition motifs.

I like the sonority of the viola, the articulation, etc.—however, my main reservation with this interpretation concerns the ubiquitous, rather prominent vibrato, covering every note, except (most) semiquavers. One should of course note that the focus of Kim Kashkashian’s activities is not in baroque music, let alone HIP performances of pre-classical works. Rather, she has always focused on romantic and 20th century contemporary music.

II. Allemande (4’16”)

Among the slower performances, but clearly faster than the slowest three (de Naverán 2001, Skalka 2000, and Bylsma 1992). And yes, this now is an Allemande, with noticeable 4/4 (dance) swaying, even though the occasional hesitations stand in the way of a persistent dance feeling. The piece “works very well” on the viola—the lack of “bass feeling” does not hurt at all.

A few quibbles here: for one, the occasional vibrato on longer notes is far too nervous (and unnecessary). And there is the occasional, exaggerated belly note (e.g., in bar 89). Finally: Kim Kashkashian leaves the first passes untouched. However, she adds several ornaments to the repeats. That’s totally OK, of course (some may even call this a necessity). However, to me, some of these ornaments feel rather unusual, actually too peculiar, as if the artist wanted to be different from “mainstream baroque” at all costs?

III. Courante (2’12”)

Compared to the cello, the viola makes this sound lighter, more agile. The articulation is careful, clear, the interpretation has momentum. My main (minor) quibble: where Kim Kashkashian decides to split phrases, this tends to disrupt the flow, break the momentum (to some degree). It is hard enough to create a swaying sensation in this movement—here it seems impossible, or momentary only, at best.

IV. Sarabande (4’25”)

The character of the viola moves the Sarabande into the domain of a lighter dance. And dancing it is! Kim Kashkashian combines the lighter articulation from HIP performances with a vibrating, singing tone that is reminiscent of traditional interpretations. Even though comparatively “lightweight”, the viola, particularly the soprano voice in the descant, suits this movement well. And the artist’s occasional extra ornaments are well-fitting, “integrated”!

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’41”)

Menuet I

A good, unexcited tempo, agogic swaying—the viola serves this movement well. To me, the somewhat prominent vibrato stands in the way of the character of a typical Menuet. The triple-stop chords appear as mellow arpeggios. That per se is fine, but at the same time, they broaden the note, hence disrupt the 3/4 rhythm. Similarly, in motifs with 3 slurred and 3 détaché quavers, Kim Kashkashian articulates the latter extra carefully—to the point where hinder the flow and the dance swaying. Overall, the interpretation tends to feel somewhat heavy, loaded. The artist’s extra ornaments (especially in the repeats) don’t help the free dance swaying either.

Menuet II

With its more regular / even, more natural flow, the simpler “attitude”, the second Menuet, albeit a tad slower overall, appears more fluent and more fluid than the first one. There are also some “obstacles” to the flow, though (e.g., the delayed entry into the slurred quavers in bar 6). However, these are minor in comparison. It is unclear to me why the artist changes the slurred notes in bar 7 from quaver + 2 semiquavers to 2 semiquavers + quaver, if not to a triplet. I like the artist’s extra ornaments—though more would undoubtedly be too much.

VII. Gigue (2’57”)

I like the general approach (articulation, tempo) in this interpretation, and the many extra ornaments in the repeats (although not strictly a necessity) suit the movement very well. However, given the dance character of the movement, my preference would be to have more rhythmic continuity, e.g., consistent swaying across a phrase. In search for local expression (Klangrede), Kim Kashkashian often resorts to local “hold-ups” (little hesitations) within a phrase, as if to emphasize / magnify a detail in a motif. These do indeed add local “language”, but they also tend to disrupt the agogic flow, the swaying.

Total Duration: 21’41”

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

Comment: Transposing up the suite by an octave, combined with the specific alto sonority of the viola certainly adds interesting new perspectives, new colors, and it shifts the weight balance between the registers. Kim Kashkashian remains truthful to the score—and hence, I see this as a legitimate adaptation, and an expansion, an enrichment to the repertoire. Kim Kashkashian has certainly adopted many aspects of historically informed performance practice. Still, the recording may not fulfill all wishes / requirements of the HIP community, though.


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

Sergey Malov, 2018 — Violoncello da spalla

Sony / Solo Musica, ℗/© 2020
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007. Sergey Malov consequently leaves out all repeats.

I. Prélude (3’14”)

Sergey Malov’s concept isn’t far from David Watkin‘s, though perhaps not quite as compelling, not achieving quite the same coherence. Not surprisingly, the sonority of the violoncello da spalla is between that of a cello and of a viola. It is smaller, less full / sonorous than a cello in the bass, but brighter (viola-like) in the descant. To achieve acceptable volume in the bass, Sergey Malov is resorting to special, tailor-made strings. The artist uses vibrato sparingly and very discreetly.

The final chords are played as such but linked through cadenzas / fioriture. Not all of these are exactly compelling: the transitions from the ornaments to the following chord don’t feel harmonious / natural. Not fully convincing.

II. Allemande (1’38”)

Technically excellent, agile, virtuosic even (no problem with the demisemiquavers in bar 9, despite the fast pace). Careful, detailed articulation and dynamics. There is agogic swaying, however the rhythm, the flow isn’t persistent enough to keep track of the 4/4 meter, or to make this a dance movement. And I definitely miss the repeats!

III. Courante (0’53”)

Without the repeats (!), the movement is less than a minute. At this pace, I certainly would like to hear the repeats, just to capture the details passing by so rapidly. Sure, it’s technically excellent, though the sonority, the details in articulation start suffering, especially in the occasional, dynamic outbursts. Is the artist trying to prove that violoncello da spalla is “better than”, or “superior to” conventional cello playing? This is not the place for a speed competition, and musically, the performance does not win me over.

IV. Sarabande (1’49”)

One of the most fluid interpretations, though not really pushed—and dancing, indeed! I like the general approach (apart from the missing repeats, of course)—one of Malov’s best movements so far. If there’s a “hair in the soup”, that would be the occasional, spontaneous / uncontrolled outbursting upstrokes.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (1’27”)

Menuet I

One might call this extreme agogic swaying—to the point where the “light” beats / quavers in each bar appear rushed / pushed, even superficial. Somewhat exaggerated, I think.

Menuet II

Almost the same here—though the second Menuet feels a bit more natural, less extreme. The absence of the repeats makes the Menuets even more episodic than they already are anyway.

VII. Gigue (1’24”)

I like the basic approach in articulation, tempo, agogics, etc.—however, there are some exaggerations in dynamics (excessive highlights, as well as minor parts of motifs almost vanishing into nothing). I also noted the occasional superficialities in semiquaver motifs, as well as a slight rush, as if the artist meant to finish as soon as possible.

Total Duration: 10’25”

Rating: 3.5 / 3.5 / 3.5 / 4 / 3.5 / 4 / 3.5 = 3.64

Comment: I don’t really need to repeat how much I regret the omission of all repeats (see also my comments for the Suite No.1 in G major): a key drawback in this recording, combined with a tendency towards fast tempos.


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

Emmanuelle Bertrand, 2019

Harmonia mundi, ℗/© 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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’28”)

Emmanuelle Bertrand’s timing is almost the same as Anner Bylsma’s 1992 recording. However, her pace feels more fluid right from the beginning. The focus here is on the very pronounced local, rhythmic/agogic and dynamic swaying, the momentum in this swaying motion. An fascinating interpretation, indeed! Even though there isn’t as much overall acceleration up to the climax in bar 48, there is a constant, enthralling build-up. The same applies to the coda (bars 49ff). And different from Anner Bylsma, the final chords are chords (broad arpeggio chords), which the artist links with transitions and even a little cadenza, maintaining the momentum, the forward motion, the tension up to the last tone. An excellent interpretation that has no need to resort to vibrato!

II. Allemande (3’14”)

Emmanuelle Bertrand selected a very fluid pace: #4 among the fastest performances. If we ignore conventions about Allemande, that tempo absolutely makes sense. The artist puts each of the halves under a single, compelling phrasing arch. Her performance has drive and momentum—yet nothing is rushed or pushed. Not even the demisemiquaver passage in bar 9 (with the help of some subtle “agogic stretching”). I particularly like how Emmanuelle Bertrand uses the chords in bars 1 – 3 to pick up momentum, to launch into the next segment. The focus is on the musical flow (1 – 2 bars or bigger periods), more than on Klangrede in local motifs.

The one argument against this view that one might use is, that one can barely feel the underlying 4/4 dance pace. An Allemande in 2/2 (split time) maybe? I tend to ignore this argument here—I enjoy the harmonious, enthralling flow, the big phrasing arches.

III. Courante (1’53”)

It’s not that the artist didn’t master the chosen, fast pace—Emmanuelle Bertrand is technically excellent. Nevertheless, the performance feels a tad too “speed-driven”. Yes, there is engagement and plenty of detail in articulation. Nevertheless, the pace does not allow differentiating between subsequent motifs. Once the listener starts recognizing “pattern” in articulation and dynamics, the overall impression on the interpretation leans towards “summary”, even though it is not careless, nor superficial.

IV. Sarabande (5’03”)

Measured, light articulation, but big, very expressive gestures: Klangrede at its best! Despite the slow pace, Emmanuelle Bertrand manages to produce big, impressive arches, while at the same time also exposing the underlying slow, 3/4 dance meter, with beautiful agogics. Big, characterful sonority, expansive dynamics—excellent! I’m ignoring the occasional, subtle Nachdrücken—that’s really a negligible issue here.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (2’58”)

Menuet I

There are three actors in this movement: the artist, the Tononi cello, and the church acoustics. To me, the latter are far too prominent here. They interfere with the bright sonority of the (upper) gut strings, given the decisive and short articulation, the firm (almost aggressive) grip on the strings, especially with the chords and the staccato. I don’t think the recording gives a good representation for what a listener would hear in the recording location.

Menuet II

Besides Jaap ter Linden (1996), Pierre Fournier (1960), Benedikt Kloeckner (2021), Vito Paternoster (1998), and Petr Skalka (2020), Emmanuelle Bertrand is in a minority of artists that keep both Menuets at almost or exactly the same pace. And yet, character and sonority are completely different, less aggressive. Here, the sound is darker, the articulation more mellow, even gentle, and Emmanuelle Bertrand’s occasional, personal ornaments make the movement appear playful, light, serene, lucid.

VII. Gigue (2’28”)

A bit too fast & busy, especially considering the church acoustics. Some more opportunity to breathe between the phrases (and to enjoy the details) would have helped this otherwise excellent interpretation.

Total Duration: 19’05”

Rating: 5 / 4.5 / 4 / 5 / 4 / 4.5 / 4 = 4.43

Comment: An excellent interpretation, with a certain tendency towards rather fluid tempi. Occasionally somewhat hampered by excess reverberation from church acoustics.


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

Juris Teichmanis, 2019

Decurio, ℗/© 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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’07”)

Primary impression: an austere soundscape. The tone is rather matte, especially in soft segments. Minor notes (upstrokes mainly?) often are noisy, whirring. Maybe the artist and/or the recording team meant to avoid an excess of “acoustic cosmetics”? The idea is commendable. However, this is a recording, not a concert performance, and recordings naturally are subject to scrutiny by the listener. Hence, if the “rawness” of a recording is exaggerated, the listener’s ear can easily get “hooked” on whirring tones, scratching noises from the interaction of the bow with the gut strings. Overall, this may do the listener, the music and the composer a disservice.

Interpretation

Juris Teichmanis uses perceptible agogics to support phrasing—though he apparently wants to avoid an excess in regularity and fluidity. Especially in the first part, there are occasional, tiny hold-ups between partial phrases—as if the artist was trying to “organize the puzzle”. Later, in the long build-up towards the fermata in bar 48, the interpretation turns more fluid, even develops a dramatic “pull” forward. In the last part (coda), that “pull” and the associated acceleration are even stronger.

Teichmanis mostly plays without vibrato—except for longer peak notes, which tend to swell/evolve with a subtle vibration—harmonious and largely inconspicuous. The swelling itself, though, is occasionally bordering on “belly notes”.

I like the execution of the final bars, where Juris Teichmanis links the chords with short, free cadenzas that remind me of the stylus fantasticus—quite appropriate for that period in the composer’s life.

II. Allemande (3’56”)

Why does Teichmanis’ cello sound so hoarse? This may well be how the artist hears his own instrument. However, the noisy part of the cello sound does not project well, and so, concert audiences don’t hear most of the scratching noises—the sound of the interaction of a baroque bow with gut strings. And I doubt that with the recording, listeners are eager to “get the full blast” of all the by-noises. That may not be the fault of the artist, but a question of acoustics and microphone placement.

It’s too bad that the recording partly prevents the listener from enjoying the sonority of the instrument, and Teichmanis’ emphatic, engaged, and intense interpretation. It’s maybe a little too intense, lacking nuances, subtle, maybe even intimate moments?

III. Courante (2’11”)

Another, rather noisy movement: often, it even seems hard to judge whether the playing, the intonation is even clean or not. The overall impression: rather crude, rough, especially in the détaché / staccato. Not much of an esthetic delight.

IV. Sarabande (4’54”)

Juris Teichmanis is one of just three artists who follow the manuscript reading for bars 25 and 26, playing (a-b-c’-b♭-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c-d’) rather than (a-b-c’-b-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c♯’-d’), as per the tradition / the printed editions—see above for details. Besides Juris Teichmanis, only Petr Skalka consequently pursues that path. Jean-Guihen Queyras followed the hearing habit (the printed version) in the first pass, but chose the manuscript version for the second pass.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’43”)

Menuet I

Static, heavy, if not clumsy, too slow, not a Menuet, not a dance. The sonority often resembles that of a viola (in the bad sense, that is).

Menuet II

A stark contrast in tempo, more natural, lighter, and more like a Menuet. As for the upper strings, I have heard more pleasant sonorities…

VII. Gigue (2’51”)

This sounds like a demonstrative statement “I’m using a baroque bow and gut strings!”. Tempo, rhythmic swaying, agogics, slurs etc. are all OK. However, the primary impression remains that of a noisy performance, with harsh, rough (if not scratchy) staccato, whirring strings, scratching noise from the bow/string interaction. “Anti-esthetics”?

Total Duration: 21’43”

Rating: 3.5 / 3 / 3.5 / 3 / 3 / 3.5 / 3 = 3.21

Comment: A demonstration of “historically informed” that fails on me. Not recommended.


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

Benedict Kloeckner, 2020

Brilliant Classics, ℗/© 2021
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’00”)

A modernized instrument and a modern bow, clearly. Benedict Kloeckner does not try “imitating HIP style” with light détaché articulation etc.—rather, he offers a smooth, clean tone, gentle articulation, and firmness in intonation, and a harmonious, never intrusive vibrato. That said: the performance is by no means a neutral, let alone featureless interpretation! The beauty of this performance is in phrasing and agogics. The artist combines agogic swaying in the gentle waves, following the motifs, with broad, harmonious phrasing / dynamic arches. And along with the volume, the tone, the color grows from introverted, retained softness, warmth, intimacy into blooming, sonorous climaxes. However, even in the latter, the interpretation never is extroverted or trying to show off, not even in the build-up to the fermata.

With the pause after the fermata in bar 48, the artist returns to total intimacy / introversion, which he retains through the descending scales (bars 54 – 56). There is just a very minor ritardando in transition to the final bars, where the first three chords are linked through very nice, short cadenzas / ornaments, and the final transition is done with a trill. Overall: a beautiful, harmonious, often intimate interpretation that completely hides the earnest (if not austere) mood that many see in this music.

II. Allemande (3’43”)

The most pronounced part of the swaying here is dynamic (rather than rhythmic / agogic). Often a little too pronounced, I think. Triple- and quadruple-stop chords stand out by themselves and don’t require extra highlighting with an (often “belly”) accent. The dynamics in general are “strong enough”. Moreover, there are features in the dynamics that I dislike: in motifs with a short upstroke (e.g.: four semiquavers with a slur over the first three notes), that upstroke often stands out. These “inadvertent highlights” may be seen as insufficient dynamic control. Too bad for an otherwise nice interpretation.

III. Courante (2’11”)

Relaxed, effortless, differentiated in articulation and dynamics, succeeds in carrying the momentum from one phrase to the next. Swaying in the big phrases. Only occasionally, chords are a little too “anti-percussive” (i.e., blown up towards the next phrase).

IV. Sarabande (4’55”)

Very long build-ups—too much focus on the largest-scale developments, at the expense of colors and local expression. Too much “local uniformity” in expression, lacking Klangrede, breathing, narration? Technically perfect, sure, perfectly balanced—too perfect, too even?

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’03”)

Menuet I

Very pronounced dynamic and agogic swaying—a little too pronounced even. I actually feels a tad exaggerated, “fabricated”, too smooth, not relaxed / playful enough for a Menuet dance movement.

Menuet II

Besides Emmanuelle Bertrand (2019), Pierre Fournier (1960), Vito Paternoster (1998), Jaap ter Linden (1996), and Petr Skalka (2020), Benedikt Kloeckner is in a minority of artists that keep both Menuets at almost or exactly the same pace.

More intimate, more modest and natural than Menuet I—and far less “fabricated”: much better!

VII. Gigue (2’44”)

Moody, between playful and austere (staccato), careful and detailed in articulation and phrasing, not exaggerating the agogics—a springy dance movement nevertheless.

Total Duration: 20’36”

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

Comment: An excellent and detailed / careful “modern” interpretation, engaged, never sterile, nor overly polished: a recommendation for those who dislike gut strings!


Benedict Kloeckner’s Extra for the Suite in D minor

Elena Kats-Chernin (source: Australian Music Centre)
Elena Kats-Chernin

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.2 in D minor, this is a short composition by the Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (*1957)

The Composer, Elena Kats-Chernin (*1957)

The composer’s full biography is available at the site of the Australian Music Centre. In order not to overload the (already large) text, let me just quote excerpts from that biography:

Born in 1957 in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Elena Kats-Chernin received training at the Gnessin Musical College before immigrating to Australia in 1975. She graduated from the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music (now Sydney Conservatorium of Music) in 1980 and was awarded a DAAD (German academic exchange) grant to study with Helmut Lachenmann (*1935) in Hannover. She remained in Germany for 13 years, returning in 1994 to Australia where she now lives in Sydney.

The biography mentions that Elena Kats-Chernin’s oeuvre covers a wide variety of genres—she is enjoying a successful international career not just in Australia, but internationally. She has had lots of success with music for the stage, as well as for films.

The Work: “I am Cello”

The 2.5-minute (2’35”) solo piece that Benedict Kloeckner commissioned is “I am Cello”.

In the booklet text (© Elena Kats-Chernin), the composer states “During the Sydney 2020 lockdown at the start of the world pandemic and the regular cancellations of many of my projects, it was a pleasant surprise to receive a beautiful request from the outstanding Benedict Kloeckner to write a short solo, “I Am Cello“, to be played between the Bach Suites, along with the music of other composers. The idea for a piece that is almost a song and tells almost a story got born really quickly. It is also almost a waltz, albeit a slow one. I see this piece like a flower bulb that opens up over the course of 2-3 minutes.

How Does it Sound?

What a beautiful little gem! Whether or not it is a waltz to me is secondary—far more important is the slow, calm swaying—or rather: the relaxed breathing. The piece is based on a very short theme that is repeated and varied, undergoing constant, melodic and harmonic evolution / permutations. Initially slightly melancholic / reflective, the theme evolves, slowly grows, starts blooming in a beautiful climax, appears to rise to the sky, into a world of fantasy, then returns to the initial reflective mood, the initial harmonies. Through all this, it maintains the calm, relaxed breath. A beautiful dream, serene, heavenly. A more harmonious, more peaceful composition is hardly imaginable.

I did not see any obvious links to Bach’s Cello Suites. “I Am Cello” is in C major—however, the theme is very simple (both as melody, as well as harmonically) and can be performed / associated with any of the Cello Suites.


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

Château de Versailles, ℗ 2020 / © 2021
Artist: Myriam Rignol (*1988, see also Wikipedia)
Instrument: Viola da gamba (bass viol)
Pitch: a’ = 400 Hz, transposed to E minor
See the Comparison Summary for more information on artist, instrument, recording location etc.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’11”)

One of the slow performances of this Prélude. It is indeed calm and introspective—partly thanks to the dark sonority of the artist’s viola da gamba. Indeed, when switching to this recording from a typical cello interpretation, it takes a moment to adjust to the sonority of the viol. I wonder how much the sound technician has contributed to this. Given the intimate nature of the viol, I’d have preferred a closer microphone placement, showing more of the sounds (a.k.a. noise) from the interaction between bow and gut strings. The slightly dull sonority of the recording is the main drawback with this performance.

On to the interpretation: yes, it is calm, but by no means static. Rather, Myriam Rignol uses pronounced agogic swaying to keep the movement in constant, wave- or pendulum-like motion. She accelerates while descending and slows down in the ascending part of the phrase / motif. The top notes act both as local climax, and as pivot between subsequent phrases. The result is a calm, natural flow: beautiful! The waves consequently build up towards the fermata in bar 48.

The p annotation in the part after the fermata (Coda) isn’t much softer, but one can feel a gradual “let-go” after the fermata-climax, finally picking up momentum again towards the final 5 “chord bars”. In these, Myriam Rignol sets the chords as “solemn monuments”, which she links with free ornaments / “micro-cadenzas“. Beautiful.

II. Allemande (3’25”)

The most prominent differentiator here is in the sonority. As outlined above, some (most?) of it is in the intimate nature of the instrument, which the artist may have wanted to emphasize. However, I suspect that an unfortunate component in this is with the recording, i.e., microphone placement and sound management. After the upward transposition by a full tone (partly offset by the a’ = 400 Hz pitch) I would expect a brighter, more colorful sound, especially in the descant.

That’s unfortunate, as Myriam Rignol’s interpretation not only features a well-chosen tempo, but excellent, swaying agogics (dance feeling), careful articulation and dynamics, Klangrede throughout. Note that different from Paolo Pandolfo‘s interpretation / transcription, this performance closely follows Bach’s original notation.

III. Courante (2’57”)

The two Courantes on viola da gamba (Myriam Rignol and Paolo Pandolfo) in the comparison are those with the longest durations. This may indicate that there are specific challenges with this movement. Within the six Suites, this may be the first virtuosic piece, and there may indeed be specific difficulties in transferring this from the cello (4 strings, tuned in fifths) to a viola da gamba (7 strings, tuned in fourths and thirds). Also, the character of the viol doesn’t lend itself to virtuosic shows. Overall, I suspect that there may be just as much musical reasons (e.g., the lyrical, more intimate nature of the instrument) for the gambists to select a moderate pace for the Courante.

The moderate tempo in Myriam Rignol’s performance stands in the way of the expected, fluid 3/4 dance rhythm / character of the Courante. As listener, I mostly feel a quaver-based rhythmic foundation. The 3/4 meter is almost imperceptible. Also, at this moderate pace, I wished for some of the longer phrases to be split, such as to give the listener for more “room to breathe”.

On the other hand, every note even is treated with care in articulation and dynamics, every motif, every phrase is beautifully played out, there are no “neglected” notes. And there is much more Klangrede in the details than a typical, fast(er) cello performance can offer.

The result may not exactly fit the character of a Courante. However, in the realm of a transcription / adaptation, this is more than just acceptable—it shows new facets (and colors!) in Bach’s composition, opens new, interesting views.

IV. Sarabande (5’03”)

All retracted, introverted, reflective. Carefully articulated in every detail, every motif—maybe at the expense of the big arches, and of some flow continuity. My other, minor quibble is with the occasional, “spontaneous belly dynamics” on longer notes. Not surprisingly, Myriam Rignol’s approach is completely different from Paolo Pandolfo’s, and much closer to Bach’s text.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (3’47”)

Menuet I

As one can also see in Marianne Dumas‘ interpretation, the “inverted” bowing—here the “innate” technique on the viola da gamba—appears to preclude the kind of percussive articulation that one finds in many (regular) cello interpretations. So, here, we hear gentle, mellow contours in articulation and dynamics. However, Myriam Rignol’s peaceful interpretation still offers agogics and dance swaying, warmth, and intimacy. One minor quibble: occasionally, rhythmic contours appear a tad fuzzy, “washed out”.

Menuet II

Interestingly, Myriam Rignol takes the second Menuet noticeably faster than the first one—why not? At this pace, agogics and dance swaying are even a bit more pronounced and can be felt in every bar.

Together with David Watkin (2013) and Petr Skalka (2020), Myriam Rignol is in a small group of artists who perform the da capo instance of the first Menuet with both repeats.

VII. Gigue (3’10”)

Here again, the biggest drawback with this recording is in the somewhat dull, slightly muffled soundscape. I can’t believe that the artist or the instrument is to blame here. Rather, I think this is due to an unfortunate recording setup.

Bars 15, 17, and 19 feature full bar drones on A, d, and e, respectively, under a slurred semiquaver figure. Here, the artist shortens these to a semiquaver. Superficially, one might argue that there are other instances where the bass note is only a quaver, i.e., not a drone, or it is split into three quaver notes. However, in all these other instances, the semiquaver melody is split into three slurred pairs. It may be somewhat of a challenge (on the viol only?) to keep the drone sounding through the entire bar?

Apart from the above observation, Myriam Rignol stays sincere to Bach’s notation—a viable “cello interpretation on the viol”. The piece is not without technical challenges, though. An indication for this may be in the fact that over the last 20 bars, the interpretation appears to lose some of its momentum.

Total Duration: 22’34”

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

Comment: For the lovers of the viola da gamba, this is a recording that truthfully reproduces the cello score in the sonority of the viol, key aspects being (“inverse” / viol) bowing and articulation. For the most part, it is a straight transcription with minor adaptations. The transposition to E minor, and the setup / tuning of a 7-string viola da gamba alone already have a profound effect on the soundscape. An enrichment to the discography of the Bach Suites, not overloaded with extravaganzas.


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

Petr Skalka, 2020

Claves, ℗/© 2023
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (4’09”)

The timing indicates one of the slower performances. However, Petr Skalka subjects the tempo to extreme agogics. It’s not the regular, wave-like swaying: there are phrases that start in a fluid pace, then broaden to extremes in the latter part, at times almost coming to a halt—or vice versa. That, and the artist’s refusal to play pronounced (f) arpeggio chords (most chords are performed as sequential, single notes) may be seen as bordering on mannerism. Within the last five chords (sequential, as mentioned), the first two intervals are filled with identical (but shifted) descending motifs, the latter two intervals with a single transition note.

I can’t say that I dislike the interpretation—although it certainly is extravagant, maybe outlandish in many aspects.

II. Allemande (4’48”)

It’s interesting that the two slowest Allemandes in this comparison are the two latest additions, Petr Skalka and Pablo de Naverán. Petr Skalka is the more moderate of the two, but still at almost half the pace of the fastest performance. Here, there is at least a “scent” of a crotchet-based rhythmic foundation. However, at around M.M. 45 – 50, there is still no dance feeling. It’s not just the slow pace, but Petr Skalka uses short (“light”) articulation, often uses staccato, lifts the bow after semiquaver pairs, which draws the listener’s attention to those short notes and motifs, away from larger phrases / melodies / structures. A pensive, reflective, often hesitating piece at best—certainly not a dance of any kind.

III. Courante (2’02”)

A very impulsive, occasionally almost aggressive interpretation (certainly one with “bite”!). Petr Skalka’s agogics are extreme. In some rapid passages secondary motifs are bordering on superficiality. On the other hand, the artist broadens individual notes at phrase ends / transitions, and around highlights / climaxes to the extreme. He is not using ritardando, though; rather, he carries the momentum from one phrase to the next, maintains an electrifying presence throughout the movement.

IV. Sarabande (4’16”)

Decided, clear bow strokes / articulation / language, pronounced swaying across every phrase: a dance movement, clearly. Expressive, characterful, controlled.

Petr Skalka is one of just three artists who follow the manuscript reading for bars 25 and 26, playing (a-b-c’-b♭-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c-d’) rather than (a-b-c’-b-c’-b-a | b-c♯’-d’-c♯’-d’), as per the tradition / the printed editions—see above for details. Besides Petr Skalka, only Juris Teichmanis consequently pursues that path. Jean-Guihen Queyras followed the hearing habit (the printed version) in the first pass, but chose the manuscript version for the second pass.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (4’02”)

Menuet I

Petr Skalka’s tempo choices for the two Menuets are virtually identical to David Watkin‘s. Here, the two movements feature virtually the same pace. That’s where the similarities end, though. Petr Skalka’s articulation is resolute and percussive, with “bite”, the rhythm somewhat rigid, schematic, and in the second part, the sonority occasionally reminds of a hurdy-gurdy.

Menuet II

Also here, Petr Skalka often uses staccato articulation—an attempt to make the Menuets resemble each other? Moreover, Skalka’s reading of slurred quaver motifs isn’t free of arbitrariness, or at the very least rather unconventional.

Together with David Watkin (2013) and Myriam Rignol (2020, viola da gamba), Petr Skalka is in a small group of artists who perform the da capo instance of the first Menuet with both repeats.

Besides Emmanuelle Bertrand (2019), Pierre Fournier (1960), Benedikt Kloeckner (2021), Vito Paternoster (1998), and Jaap ter Linden (1996), Petr Skalka is in a minority of artists that keep both Menuets at almost or exactly the same pace.

VII. Gigue (2’54”)

This is the movement that I like the most in this interpretation. The very pronounced agogics, i.e., the strong swaying in every phrase, ranging from an (almost) stand-still to enthralling moments full of momentum in the center of a phrase suits this movement very well. And so does the “bite” in the capricious staccato on the détaché notes: a movement full of life!

Total Duration: 22’11”

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

Comment: Historically informed “by the book”—perhaps occasionally a tad academic. Often somewhat austere, dry in articulation and sonority. The movements I like the most are Courante and Gigue, where the artist lets loose his temperament in vivid agogics.


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

Bruno Philippe, 2021

Harmonia mundi, ℗ 2022
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

I. Prélude (3’35”)

An interesting interpretation—I admire Bruno Philippe’s courage—he offers an interpretation that is devoid of any audible vibrato! Also, I suspect that the interpretation still needs some time to grow / evolve. The ascending opening motif (or the opening bars) left me puzzled: it felt as if the artist hadn’t decided yet whether to take a firm, gripping approach, or rather to opt for a defensive, introverted opening. The result feels like an undecided, hybrid opening, leaving a feeling of uncertainty. It’s not just the opening, as to some degree this also applies to later instances of this same motif.

Further into the movement, though, the interpretation gradually feels more self-assured, gaining confidence. Around bar 30, at the first climax, the artist appears to have found the balance, opening up, allowing for joy and radiance, even for an extra ornament (bar 30). The same opening happens in the build-up towards the fermata-climax in bar 48. The subsequent coda (p) starts softly but retains some of the elation from the preceding build-up. The chord in bar 54 isn’t f (as in some editions), but rather a little question mark. The response (i.e., the following, descending scales) rapidly accelerates and builds up towards the climax and the final chords, which Bruno Philippe links with nice, inventive (and very personal) ornamented figures.

II. Allemande (2’41”)

Very fast (only Steven Isserlis is faster in this movement) and virtuosic! Bruno Philippe is faster than Rostropovich. Yet, nothing is mechanic, pushed, machine-like. Rather, the artist’s playing is almost relaxed, playful, his left-hand agility astounding. And one can still clearly sense the 4/4 meter, and there’s agogic swaying, “speaking”, careful articulation. Also, in the repeats, Bruno Philippe is adding numerous extra ornaments—inventive, personal, well-fitting, and beautiful, yet not overloading Bach’s score. An amazing performance!

The only reservation I have is that the tempo doesn’t really fit what most expect from an Allemande—typically dance with moderate (not necessarily stately) tempo. That said, the interpretation is highly interesting, and fun to listen to.

III. Courante (1’37”)

Very, very fast, indeed (only Vito Paternoster is even faster), amazingly virtuosic—and yet clean! With most artists, I might have questioned whether this fast tempo is appropriate. However, Bruno Philippe’s technical prowess is simply breathtaking: he still controls every detail in articulation and dynamics. There isn’t a single note that lacks control, be it in dynamics, articulation, or in sonority. Yes, slower performances can elaborate more on tiny details in Klangrede etc.—this, however, is enthralling, fascinating, masterful!

IV. Sarabande (4’17”)

Calm, without rush, introverted, considerate, resting in itself, yet continuously moving / stepping forward—a slow dance, indeed, wonderfully balanced, never trying to be “big” (except for the final climax, which feels like a painful outcry of sorts). In the repeats & transitions, Bruno Philippe adds a set of beautiful, rich, and highly personal ornaments / fioriture. the tempo is a bit above the average—but it doesn’t feel that way, at all. Fascinating!

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

Menuet I

Earnest, determined, both light and firm in the articulation, persistent agogic swaying in every bar. Bruno Philippe is rather liberal with extra ornaments (and not just in the repeats). However, these don’t feel excessive, they always fit well and are fully integrated into the musical flow. In parts, the ornaments compensate for the earnest and somewhat austere mood in this movement.

Menuet II

A beautiful contrast: faster, soft, serene, lightweight, playful.

VII. Gigue (2’27”)

Stunning! This is the fastest interpretation (by a small margin only, but still)—and yet, the tempo is always under control, there are no superficialities, and the performance feels relaxed, free. The performance is not polished for perfection. However, the sonority is excellent—no roughness, no scratching, every note is present and well-defined—also the bass notes in double- and triple-stop chords. And in the repeats, Bruno Philippe even adds a few play- and beautiful ornaments / fiorituras. Excellent, just from the technical mastership alone. Moreover, Bruno Philippe’s playing reveals rhythmic intricacies in the movement that go unnoticed in most or all other interpretations. Isn’t there even the occasional scent of Jazz??? Amazing—the youngest artist in the comparison delivering the most compelling interpretation of this movement!

Total Duration: 17’43”

Rating: 4 / 4.5 / 4.5 / 5 / 4.5 / 5 / 5 = 4.64

Comment: From the interesting first movement to the masterpiece of the Gigue—technically and musically masterful, compelling, an enriching experience. A strong recommendation for the youngest of the artists!


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

Claves, ℗/© 2023
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.

For general comments concerning recording quality and settings, acoustics, as well as the artist’s approach to the Cello Suites see the posting on the Suite No.1 for Cello Solo in G major, BWV 1007.

General Comment

Pablo de Naverán presents an extreme interpretation—at least as far as the tempo goes. In this Suite, for three of the movements, his pace is about half that of the fastest performances. A general tendency towards slow tempo was already present in Suite No.1—but not quite as pronounced in the extremes as here.

Apart from the tempo: there is no booklet with this recording, but my listening experience tells me that Pablo de Naverán is using a modernized cello with a modern (Tourte-type) bow. Vibrato is quasi-omnipresent, but harmonious, typically inconspicuous, below a level where it would affect the intonation.

I. Prélude (5’29”)

This is the first movement that is vastly slower than the average—over 20% slower than the closest contender. I must concede, though, that it does not always feel as slow as the timing would suggest. True, one might say that often the performance is cautiously crawling along. It isn’t static, though. After a climax, Pablo de Naverán often accelerates, just to slow down again towards the next climax. He does that very conspicuously, to a degree that in romantic music would be called tempo rubato.

In bar 40, Pablo de Naverán starts an impressive (dynamic) build-up towards a broad climax that spans from bar 44 up, to the fermata in bar 48. This is followed by an extra-long pause, before the movement continues gently and softly (p).

I’m a bit disappointed about the last 5 bars: the artist just plays the “naked” chords as broad / epic (and static) arpeggios. I think that especially at this very slow pace, one must do “something”, be it an arpeggiando (here in semiquavers), or by inserting some free fioriture, or the like—but not nothing.

Intonation?

A tricky issue, and not something that I can discuss in detail here. Just briefly: string instruments are different from keyboard instruments, where the tuning is fixed at least within a movement / a complete composition. String instruments are not limited to equal temperament tuning, or bound to a fixed tuning (such as Werckmeister, etc., see my articles on harpsichord tuning).

Rather, string players tend to perform pure, “Pythagorean” intervals (pure thirds, fifths, etc.). However, they may also deviate from “pure” tuning, e.g., to emphasize the lead tone character if a minor second by making it smaller (rising the lower note), and the like. In other words: intervals on string instruments aren’t always just either “correct” or “off”. Also, specific notes may see a different pitch across a piece, depending on the harmonic or melodic “environment”. One might go as far as stating that (to some degree) intonation on string instruments is up to the artist’s taste and preference.

Here, I could not point to specific notes and claim that they are “off tune”, unless I wanted to analyze and discuss numerous specific intervals or notes in detail. However, I can’t deny that I don’t always feel at ease with Pablo de Naverán’s intonation. It’s merely nuances—not enough to say it’s “off”, but enough for me to feel a slight discomfort (particularly in some segments where there is little or no vibrato).

II. Allemande (5’56”)

Well, the fastest performance of this movement (Steven Isserlis) is 2.5 minutes. Pablo de Naverán takes a full six minutes—that’s just 43% of Isserlis’ pace. That’s the biggest tempo divergence that I have encountered so far. The result is highly controversial, to say the least. The one positive aspect: every single tone, every motif, every small phrase is shaped with utmost care, in articulation and dynamics. Beautiful, one could say. Yes, my reservations about intonation persist also here—but that the least of my troubles.

To me, the main flaw—obviously—is with the tempo. The movement is in 4/4 (C), implying a crotchet-based pace, and 4 beats per bar. Pablo de Naverán’s performance crawls along in quavers (at something like a slow Andante pace). In this tempo, not only is the bar structure lost, but one cannot sense any rhythmic structure, let alone bigger arches / structures. There is also no breathing between some of the phrases. On the other hand, the artist is slowing down at the end of some phrases (e.g., in the middle of bar 2)—at which point the flow appears to come to a complete stand-still.

Above all this: the interpretation lacks even traces of dance character. For one, because of the extremely slow pace, but also because there is no persistent rhythmic flow.

III. Courante (1’55”)

For most movements, Pablo de Naverán opts for a slow, if not very slow tempo. Here, though, the pace is clearly above average, feeling “fast”. The artist still articulates properly, though. However, the performance is at a point where individual notes lack control in dynamics (“spontaneous, uncontrolled outbursts”), the sonority is suffering momentarily. Also, I’m afraid that the intonation often feels marginal, superficial (careless?). Too fast, I think.

IV. Sarabande (5’20”)

Beautiful sonority, broad agogic swaying. The pace is at the lowest limit—for one, the 3/4 meter is hardly recognizable as such (also due to the pronounced agogic “distortions”). Moreover, one can sense that the tempo is a tad too slow—there are several instances where the pace appears to “run-away” spontaneously. It’s merely nuances—just enough for the listener to sense a very slight, momentary unrest.

The tempo is almost the same as Rostropovich’s. If the timing appears to disagree, then that’s because Pablo de Naverán leaves away the “coda” (bars 25 – 28) in the first pass of the second part. Was the piece getting too long at the chosen pace? I think the reason was a different one: that coda forms an intense, broad climax. I could well imagine that the artist didn’t want to return to the beginning of the second part after this climax. Still, the omission may cause objections. Nevertheless, this is one of the best movements so far, by this artist.

V./VI. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo (4’07”)

Menuet I

I have mentioned the artist’s preference for very slow tempo before. The Menuet I is no exception—it’s the slowest performance by far, softened beyond recognition. Hardly a Menuet at all: not just slow, but many of the triple-stop chords (most prominently the first two) are converted, broken into ascending sequences. With this, the movement not only loses all rhythmic contours, but also the swaying, the character of a dance. only the closing chords in the two parts (first instance of the second part only) have a little bit of “bite”, of grip. Can / should a Menuet really (ever) be such a momentous, if not tragic / dramatic piece? I don’t think so!

Menuet II

The second Menuet, in contrast, is very nice: relaxed, lovely, peaceful, by far not as slow as the first Menuet, fluid enough (the slurred quavers in the second part almost feel a tad too fluid). The contrast between the two Menuets is not just in the tempo, but in their character, a larger difference is hardly imaginable!

VII. Gigue (2’44”)

In this comparison, Pablo de Naverán’s Gigue tempo is spot-on average. However, everything else isn’t! There is strong, even extreme agogic swaying, in connection with springy dynamics. On top of that, there is more than agogics—I’d rather call this rubato, the way in which the artist accelerates across extended semiquaver passages, or sudden, momentary broadening to emphasize key passages. Also, the way the cellist emphasizes certain motifs (e.g., the c’ in bars 16/17, the b♭ in bars 18/19, the a upbeat in bar 46, then again—even stronger—the b♭ in bars 48/49 and the a in bars 52/53), the extreme dynamics in general, which border on arbitrariness. Sure, it’s fun and highly entertaining—but also rather idiosyncratic…

Total Duration: 25’32”

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

Comment: A highly unconventional interpretation at the very least, with a tendency towards extreme tempo (especially on the slow side). I would never recommend this as a first, let alone the only recording in a collection.


Conclusions

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.

Nevertheless, my strong recommendations, primarily for Pieter Wispelwey’s latest recording from 2012 should be valid for most, if not all listeners, HIP, and non-HIP.

Overall, this comparison is very much in line with the conclusions for the Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007—therefore, I won’t repeat these here.


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


Acknowledgements

The author would like to express his gratitude to:



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