Notes and Editorial Reviews
When I first looked at this CD, my initial reaction was not the most enthusiastic, I must say. Good Lord, one more arrangement of these poor mistreated works! And, to boot, a rather weird one. After all, in most minds the Baroque cello and the gamba are very similar instruments. In fact, many people think of the gamba as a second-class instrument, some sort of watered-down cello, a ghost of ancient times. So why bother? Transposing the cello suites to the gamba might seem as extravagant and ineffective as playing the Chopin études on a virginal.
On the other hand these works have been played by every possible (and even impossible!) instrument, including
the recorder. So why not the gamba? The truth is that the gamba and cello are quite different, really. Still, it is hard to imagine that a gamba could convincingly replace a cello. The surprising thing is that this is a remarkable CD, although it is very likely that it will not please everyone. I began listening with a certitude that I knew how these works were supposed to sound. But after a few minutes, I had forgotten my initial expectations regarding timbre, volume, or musical gestures. Moreover, I did not find myself pining for the cello at all. The performance swept me into its own world, and managed to keep me there, track after track.
Paolo Pandolfo is an outstanding gambist, with enviable technical skills. More important, though, is the fact that he is an extremely intelligent musician, full of ideas and displaying a unique musical personality. He plays with elegance and vigor, and shapes his phrases with gentle expressiveness. He is also smart enough not to try to mimic the heavier, more solemn instrument. He opts instead for an interpretation that forgets some of the original vocabulary, but incorporates the language of the gamba—so the pieces sound a lot more French than would seem imaginable, reminding one in places of Marin Marais. At the same time, paradoxically, the music leans toward the
style. However, if the suites lose some important characteristics, they also gain a few.
The sound of the gamba is in general less assertive than that of the cello, more ethereal, and much less ponderous. Some of the harmonies seem more resonant than in the original, some of the melodic passages seem sparer. In this new guise, the suites disclose some unsuspected glimpses of Spain, distant hints of harps and lutes, buried melodies. These changes could certainly upset the diehard fans of the cello suites, or the purists who loathe any kind of transposition or arrangement. Granted, they radically transform these works. Someone looking for the cuisine to which they are accustomed might take a while to get used to this exotic fare.
The present CD is, musically speaking, the equivalent of a diet version of some traditionally filling dessert, prepared by a very good chef. Although not as satisfying (in the heavy cream sense!) as the cello version, I find it intellectually challenging and emotionally engaging, and it is certainly easier to digest. Sometimes the notes fail to touch the right chord (oops!) in one's memory, and one feels as if the ground disappeared under one's feet. Pandolfo's phrasing is occasionally so free as to seem excessively fanciful, too fluffy, or too weird. However, that is a fleeting impression. This is an utterly convincing and accomplished performance.
For soul-searching, moving pathos, the cello is still the winner. But if you love these works enough to buy more than one version, you should consider these CDs. They reveal a sensitive, original performer, unafraid to experiment; one with a healthy penchant toward the unconventional. On second thought, you should consider them anyway, even if you already have many recordings of these works. Since I got them, I find myself enjoying them more and more. Each time I discover
some new magical twist of interpretation, some treasure that was hidden in the score, and that Pandolfo's playing seems to expose in a flattering, spontaneous light.
The double CD case includes excellent liner notes (by Pandolfo himself) and a little booklet containing a rather curious imaginary dialog between gamba and cello, again written by the artist. An eccentric idea, but he manages to pull it off. The recorded sound is very nice, round and present, with a natural bounce to it. In these days of technological wizardry, it has the further advantage of allowing us to hear the little extraneous sounds that are frequently erased from recordings, such as the noise of fingers hitting the strings or the breathing of the artist. This adds a human dimension to it that is part of the music and makes it even more exciting. It is too bad that such a careful production did not include an equally creative graphic artist. The cover art (?) is completely lacking in imagination, and the unhappy choice of colors hampers legibility. Considering how well Pandolfo fulfills the many tasks he undertakes, maybe he should have designed the cover as well.
FANFARE: Laura Rónai
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