Johann Sebastian Bach Cello Suites (Steven Isserlis) Review

Released 2007.  

BBC Review

This recording can sit proudly on the shelf alongside the great recordings of Casals...

Charlotte Gardner 2007

The question that immediately springs to mind on the release of a new CD set of the Bach Cello Suites is what, of value, could this recording possibly add to the myriad of existing recordings by the world’s great and not-so-great cellists? Steven Isserlis argues that you don’t record this set of masterpieces for the public, but rather for your own musical accomplishment. I’m not sure I subscribe to that view, but it doesn’t matter as, unlikely as it may sound, I think that Isserlis has done the impossible. He has given the listener something new, and indeed something outstandingly good.

Isserlis has based his interpretation on a combination of the earliest four surviving manuscripts, drawing mostly from the Anna Magdalena copy. He also provides a scholarly treat at the end of the suites – three extra recordings of the first Prelude, played from the earliest three copies in turn. It is a fascinating insight into the variations of tempo, bowing, and ornamentation presented to each cellist as they decide upon their own interpretation.

Along with many cellists, Isserlis feels that the suites aren’t dance suites alone but have a story behind them. He suggests that their expressive journey marks them as “Mystery Suites”, travelling from the nativity (No.1) to the agony in the garden (No.2), the descent of the Holy Spirit (No.3), the Presentation in the Temple (No.4), the Crucifixion (No.5), to the Resurrection (No.6). Whether you agree with this theory or not, it is an interesting take which probably merits further research. In the meantime, it gives the listener another way of hearing the familiar music, and also understanding of a few of the editorial decisions, for example the execution of the final five bar-long chords of the second suite’s Prelude. So different are these long, static chords to anything in any of the other suites, usual practise is to assume they are broken chords. Isserlis, however, has decided to play them as they are written, believing them to represent the Five Wounds of Christ. Unusual as the decision is, it does work.

Aside from the religious interpretation, Isserlis’s tone and tempo feel absolutely right. The fact that these are dances is never forgotten, and there are none of the self-indulgent rubatos that characterise some recordings. Dances such as the Menuet from Suite No. 2 are light and flowing, with energy and drive. However, they always retain a courtly feel rather than tipping over into country-dance bounciness, as can so often happen. For the sixth suite, in the interests of sonority, Isserlis has opted to play his four-string cello rather than the five-stringed model the suite may have been originally written for. Despite the extra position work this decision meant, the technical pressure is never heard, leaving the listener free to be caught up in the emotional, joyful music.

This recording can sit proudly on the shelf alongside the great recordings of Casals and Rostropovich. In fact, I may find myself picking it up as the favourite.

This recording is Disc Of The Week on Radio 3's CD Review

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