Sunday 19 October 2014

Bach cello suites

Bach Cello Suites - Viola de Hoog - Vivat
Bach The Six Cello Suites; Viola de Hoog; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 29 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Bach's cello suites played period style on two lovely cellos

The Vivat label continues its interesting journey through exploration of period practice, with a disc of Bach's cello suites played by the Dutch cellist Viola de Hoog.

What sound quality comes into your mind when you think of the Bach suites for solo cello? Probably, like me, the performances you heard first were ones either by Pablo Casals, or someone influenced by him; which means a richly expressive, dark, chocolatey sound with a very romantic use of vibrato and late-romantic style playing. But the cello has changed a remarkable amount in the period of its development. It is entirely possible that the ordinary cello during Bach's life-time could have been played standing up, like a modern double bass, and that is not to mention the small-scale cellos which were played on the arm like a fiddle and used for the more virtuoso pieces. Then there is the fact that strings were gut, lower tension than today with lower bridges and softer bows. All this makes for a difference in sound quality as the notes die away quicker after a hard attack, the sound is less dense. And the lower bridge and softer bow means that spread chords are less dramatic.

In the video (see below) she made about the recording, Viola de Hoog talks about being inspired to make the recording by the instrument that the plays, on this disc she uses a Guadagnini cello of around 1750 for suites 1 to 5, but she uses a five string cello built in Bohemia in 1730 for the sixth suite. Unusually the Bohemian five-string cello is bigger than the four-string Guadagnini whereas they are usually smaller.  Her bows are both modern copies of baroque bows and she uses gut strings (the lower two silver wound). The extra string (a high E string) means that polyphonic writing is easier, as does the scordatura in the fifth suite (the A string is tuned down a tone to G). But in fact, in the cello suites Bach uses far less polyphonic writing than in the solo violin works. Instead he relies in implied polyphony with the lowest note touched in as part of a single line, spreading the chord and relying on the sonorousness of the cello's lower register to count.

Here we come to the difference in sound qualities that the music gains in this style of performance. The greater speed of attenuation on the notes, means that de Hoog plays at quite fluid speeds and there is a greater range of tone, also the rhythmic underpinning can be more obvious. Most of the movements are based on dance rhythms and whilst you could not necessarily dance to them, the rhythm is still there. De Hoog also brings a great range of colours to the music. The five-string cello has a rather interesting, darkly evocative sound, and it is clear that though Bach uses it sparingly, there is rather more double stopping in this suite.

We don't know a lot about this music, neither why they were written nor for whom. Though we think of six suites, there may originally have been two sets of three, and we don't know whether the movements were all written together. This leaves a lot of scope and it is lovely to find cellists going back to something like first principals.

The disc captures the cello well, there is a lovely depth to the sound but we are close enough for details to tell. The record has not been closely edited so that we are made to imagine that playing a baroque cello is perfection, there are moments when you are aware of technical feats happening and they give a real sense of the performer. But then, the recording producer was Robert King, a performer himself. The discs come with an admirable selection of articles about Bach's music and the cello during the baroque period.

The discs are being sold as two for the price of one, so the result is something of a bargain.

I would not want to be without a recording of this music played sympathetically on a modern cello, but Viola de Hoog gives a fine account in period style. She takes us on a real exploration of what it means to play this music on the cello of Bach's day, and how it can be made to work. Essential listening.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Suite 1 in G for solo cello, BWV 1007 [17.53]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Suite 4 in E flat for solo cello, BWV 1010 [23.05]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Suite 5 in C minor for solo cello, BWV 1011 [23.25]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Suite 3 in C for solo cello, BWV 1009 [20.47]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Suite 2 in D minor for solo cello, BWV 1008 [20.25]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1739) - Suite 6 in D for solo cello, BWV 1012 [28.33]
Viola de Hoog (cello)
Recorded in Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, nr Utrecht, Netherlands
VIVAT 107 2 CD's [54.23, 79.45]
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