In the '80s there were those listeners who thought that Heinrich Schiff might redeem cello performance practice from fatal beauty and lethal elegance. Aside from the burly and brawny Rostropovich, more and more cellists were advocating a performance style whose ideals were perfect intonation and graceful phrasing. In some repertoire, say, Fauré, these are perfectly legitimate goals. In other repertoire, Beethoven and Brahms, say, it is a terrible mistake. In Bach's Cello Suites, as the fay and fragile Yo-Yo Ma recordings make clear, it was a terminal mistake. Not so in Schiff's magnificently muscular 1984 recordings of the suites: Schiff's rhythms, his tempos, his tone, his intonation, and especially his interpretations were anything but fay or fragile. In Schiff's performance, Bach's Cello Suites are not the neurasthenic music of a composer supine with dread and despair in the dark midnight of the soul, but the forceful music of a mature composer in full control of himself and his music.
Above all, Fournier's Bach playing is crowned with an eloquence, a lyricism and a grasp both of the formal and stylistic content of the music which will not easily be matched. Curiously, perhaps, it is the baroque cellist, Anner Bylsma on RCA who often provides close parallels with Fournier. Bylsma's tempos tend to be faster than those of Fournier—that, after all has been a trend in baroque music over the past 20 years or so—but his conception of the music shares ground with that of Fournier. All things considered, it is hardly surprising that these readings seem as fresh and as valid today as they did 25 or more years ago.
After her acclaimed PENTATONE debut with Transfigured Night, Alisa Weilerstein returns with a complete recording of Bach’s Cello Suites. These pieces present the highest mountain to climb for any cellist, and one of the most transcendent and rewarding experiences for listeners alike. With his suites, Bach crafted — essentially without direct precedent — a body of solo cello music that forever defined the genre and brought the Baroque cello on par with its more popular cousin, the viola da gamba. Since Pablo Casals put them in the limelight again after 150 years of relative oblivion, Bach’s suites have become the alpha and omega for generations of cellists. To Weilerstein, the joy of this music — vibrant, contemporary, unquestionably alive — is the joy of discovery. Having heard and studied these pieces for years, she now entrusts her interpretation to the listener.
Violinst Rachel Podger presents the first recording of Bach's Cello Suites on violin. Bach had a habit of recycling his own compositions for different instruments and different uses. The examples are endless; concertos appearing as sinfonias in cantatas, or concertos for violins turned into harpsichord concertos. Podger, who has spent a fair bit of time coaching cellists, both modern and baroque alike, found herself playing along to demonstrate various points. ''I started catching myself playing some of the movements I particularly loved while warming up, and realizing that it was actually possible to play them on the violin, and to find a special expressive vocabulary at the higher pitch.''