Notes and Editorial Reviews
6 Cello Suites
Helen Callus (va)
ANALEKTA 2 9968-9 (2 CDs: 134:10)
While Bach’s cello suites are occasionally performed by violists in concert and even more often in recitals by advanced students, recordings of all six on viola are relatively rare. Since the tuning of the viola is the same as the cello but up an octave, the transcriptions work well in the original keys. This is the route taken by violist Helen Callus on her splendid new disc, with the exception of the sixth suite, transposed here from
the original key D Major to G Major.
Callus’s style is fairly close to the standard 20th-century common practice, that is to say, before historically based trends began to have a limited effect on cello suite performances late in the century. It is a curious fact that although most players of Callus’s generation can turn on a dime to performing in Baroque style in ensemble contexts, the “old way” is still pervasive among string players concerning the performance of Bach’s solo suites and partitas. I could hypothesize about this curious divergence, but that conjecture will have to wait for another time.
Stylistically Callus’s readings are solidly in the mainstream of current practice, with little variance from what one might expect in performances of Haydn and Beethoven on modern instruments in large concert venues. Her sound is deep and rich, her legato has continuous weight throughout the bow stroke, and vibrato is generally pervasive. Tempos are a bit on the quick side, though not provocatively so. Dynamic shadings are colorful and tasteful, rarely veering toward extremes.
On the other hand, she does occasionally allow for period practice to intervene, most notably in the first minuet of the second suite (not so much in other minuets). Another nod to scholarship is the occasional use of ornaments in repeats, something almost unheard of among the great cello masters until the 1990s or so, and only rarely after that. She also uses off-string bowings more often than cellists of the last couple of generations, and will on rare instances drop her vibrato in favor of a more pure tone.
Performance practice issues aside, these are top-drawer readings in every way. Intonation is virtually flawless, the sound is warm and cleanly articulated, and the interpretive decisions are sensitive and carefully considered. She seems keenly aware of the dance origins of most of the forms, but doesn’t exaggerate these distinctions. The recording quality is a superb balance of clarity and bloom. Callus’s playing should be considered Exhibit A for anyone with remaining doubts about the viola’s ability to stand alongside the other strings as a viable solo instrument. There is no need to limit comparisons to other versions of the suites on the viola. This is among the very best of recordings of the suites on any instrument, and considering the overwhelming number of competitors, this is high praise indeed.
FANFARE: Michael Cameron
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