Notes and Editorial Reviews
When reviewing Barbara Westphal's viola transcriptions of J.S. Bach's cello suites, colleague Luca Sabbatini praised her musicianship and virtuosity, though ultimately found the recording tiresome to listen to. Explaining this paradox, he blamed the viola's intrinsic middle register, Westphal's excessive evenness of dynamics, and how the unnatural closeness of the recorded sound all contributed to an overall "claustrophobic impression". He was on to something. Simply put, regardless of how well these suites are performed on viola, their performances never will offer the variety of sonic richness, sonority, and expressive potential of the instrument Bach intended. Indulgences of violists aside, that's just the way it is.
Much of what else Sabbatini wrote of Westphal's traversal for Bridge also can be said of Rivka Golani's new recording on CBC. She is certainly a capable musician, a virtuoso violist with clear articulation, intonation, and style. This is a very "matter of fact" performance, not unlike cellist Yo-Yo Ma's first recording on Sony. All the notes are in their place and played well--a non-interpretation allowing the music to speak for itself in all the best of ways. For listeners who wish for an equally capable viola performance of these six suites with a bit more risk-taking, Nobuko Imai's performance on Philips (unfortunately offered only briefly as an import three years ago) will offer much satisfaction. Imai's approach often is similar to cellist Heinrich Schiff's performance on EMI, where sustained-note intervals and rhythmic liberties are often taken to heightened expressive effect.
Unlike any other currently available recording (the Kodály arrangement was briefly available years ago on SNE, performed by Robert Verebes), Golani additionally offers her own transcription of Bach's famous Chaconne from the violin Partita BWV 1004, as well as Kodály's arrangement of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy BWV 903. Regardless of how much Golani's instrument is more suited to the Chaconne here, the performance of her transcription never soars to the same heights attained on violin. This effect is not helped by the violist's rather slow tempos. Her transcription clocks in at 15:34, longer (often far longer!) than any of the nine violin recordings of the piece in my collection. The Kodály arrangement of the Chromatic Fantasy sounds just as absurd as you'd expect, regardless of the errors in the copy of the score he used. Bach's exercise in contrapuntal brilliance is transformed into a series of Paganini-esque throttlings interspersed with awry runs that Sarasate might have written had he any interest in the baroque. And Golani plays it to the hilt, resulting in perhaps the most thrilling selection in this three-CD set.
CBC's sound is excellent, with Golani's viola richly detailed yet set in a believably distant acoustic space. Peter Amsel's brief notes are informative. Golani is an outstanding musician, and I'm sure that anyone who wants to hear Bach's cello suites performed on the viola will enjoy her efforts. With so many great cello recordings of these masterpieces however, the question is why?
--John Greene, ClassicsToday.com Read less
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