Notes and Editorial Reviews
This album received the 2007 Gramophone magazine award for "Best Instrumental" recording.
This is the most wonderful cello-playing, surely among the most consistently beautiful to have been heard in this demanding music
For Isserlis the Suites suggest a meditative cycle on the life of Christ, rather like Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. He points out that this is “a personal feeling, not a theory”, but it has to be said that once you know that he is thinking of the Agony in the Garden during the darkly questioning Second Suite (the five stark chords towards the end of the Prélude representing the wounds of Christ), the Crucifixion
in the wearily troubled Fifth or the Resurrection in the joyous Sixth, it adds immense power and interest to his performances.
But then, this is also the most wonderful cello-playing, surely among the most consistently beautiful to have been heard in this demanding music, as well as the most musically alert and vivid. Not everyone will like the brisk tempi (though the Allemandes, for instance, gain in architectural coherence), but few will fail to be charmed by Isserlis’s sweetly singing tone, his perfectly voiced chords and superb control of articulation and dynamic – the way the final chord of the First Prélude dies away is spellbinding. There are so many other delights: the subtle comings and goings of the Third Prélude, the nobly poised Fifth Allemande, the swaggering climax that is the Sixth Gigue – I cannot mention them all. Suffice to say that Isserlis’s Bach is a major entrant into an already highly distinguished field, and a disc many will want to return to again and again."
-- Lindsay Kemp, Gramophone [7/2007]
Cello Suites: Nos. 1–6
Steven Isserlis (vc)
HYPERION 67541 (2 CDs: 137:08)
The first four suites occupy the first CD. The immediacy of Henry Wood Hall in London is evident from the first bars of the Suite in G major. Isserlis produces a warm tone, richly founded; his phrasing is easeful and there is a palpable sense of dedication underlining each note; improvisation, flow, and focus are well balanced. The music’s particulars and long line are finely honed. The manner in which Isserlis has been presented is gratifying in its intimacy.
This is music that Isserlis seems to have lived with for many years. His playing has familiarity but not contempt (probably impossible to tire of this music, which must have boundless possibilities). Isserlis’s pointing is lively, his tempos anything but moribund; these are, after all, suites of dances; even the Sarabandes must have a sense of movement, which they do here but without sacrificing their eloquence. The opening of the Suite in D Minor (No. 2) is especially lovely: a searching beginning.
I have Casals’s recordings, and Starker’s, and have long appreciated the selfless dedication these musicians have brought to this fascinating music. Heinrich Schiff (EMI) was a revelation to me for really underlining the spirit of the dance that Bach took as his starting point, and it’s been interesting to hear Harnoncourt (long before he was conducting) tackle this music when a full-time cellist. Jian Wang (DG) is a very inviting host of this music, and Antonio Meneses (Avie) is an excellent guide.
Isserlis’s set is compelling for reasons sometimes difficult to say. Certainly he brings a sense of purposeful motion to each movement, but never rushing or lacking poise, and he has a just sense of scale that doesn’t reduce the spiritual dimension that Bach’s invention can have. Isserlis’s musical response is both natural and personal, his gift for transporting the listener considerable, and in those two suites that, for me, can be difficult to fathom—the last two—Isserlis finds an expression and a vitality (interpretatively and technically) that is often a revelation.
For the record, Isserlis plays Suite No. 6, written for a five-stringed instrument, on the conventional four strings. Five suites are played on a Stradivarius, leaving No. 5 to a Guadagnini. Isserlis’s booklet note explains his choices, and his five-page essay is comprehensive and illuminating (not least for his pictorial descriptions of each suite, which can be taken or left). Also included is
The Song of the Birds
, music closely associated with Pablo Casals, and here played, very affectingly, in an arrangement by Sally Beamish. Furthermore, there are three further versions of the Prelude to Suite No. 1, which are played from three different sources: Anna Magdalena (Bach’s wife), Peter Kellner (who probably produced the first copy of Bach’s cello suites—Bach’s original manuscript is lost), and Johann Christoph Westphal. All three have notational differences; Isserlis tends to favor Anna Magdalena as his source.
This Hyperion release is impressive and stimulating for the high production values, for the recording quality that offers a one-to-one between Bach and the listener, for Isserlis’s written annotation, and above all for his searching and intimate traversal of music that gets better and better the more one engages with it. Having spent much time listening to this issue and reading Isserlis’s insights, I can report that it has been time well spent: indeed, I seem to have moved closer to the music and all its enchanting mystery.
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