Recital Media Review Print

Soul Food: Bach's Cello Suites, in Two New Recordings, with a Comparative Discography and Extended Remarks

September 17, 2010 - Williamsburg, MA:

J.S. Bach, 6 Suites for Solo Violoncello, S. 1007-1012; Brian Manker, cello (Samuel Zygmuntowicz, 2005); Production Storkclassics SK1001, ©2010 (rec. fall 2009, spring 2010), 137:41, $CAN25.00.

J.S. Bach, 6 Suites for Solo Violoncello, S. 1007-1012; Zuill Bailey, cello (Matteo Gofriller, 1693, Ex “Mischa Schneider”); Telarc 31978-02, ©2010 (rec. Dec. 2008), 140:28, $15.98.

Manker’s recording of these works, presumably composed ca. 1720 in Cöthen for either the gifted cellist Christian Bernhard Linike or the talented bass viol player and cellist Christian Ferdinand Abel, both of whom were in the orchestra of Bach’s employer Prince Leopold, which many view as the pinnacle of composition for solo cello, and which have been played and recorded an uncountable number of times, comes right on the heels of the much touted (and frequently played over the air waves) recording by Alexandria, VA-born Bailey. Many readers will remember Manker as the NC Symphony’s principal cellist; he left for the same spot with l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in 1999, and also teaches at McGill University there (as does Matt Haimovitz). 

Manker’s essentially self-produced product has not been made in the desire to show off his skills or to compete with the big names who have recorded them before, but rather to lay down on disk works that he has been studying and playing for himself throughout his life, much as Pau Casals, who bought an early edition as a teen-ager in 1890, did. He, too, played them for himself (although his famous daily dose of Bach was not the cello suites, as some believe, but rather keyboard works) and waited for 12 years to perform them in public, only recording them some 25 years later in the 1930s, and did both not all at once, but individually or in pairs. Many cellists of earlier generations waited many years to record their interpretations of these works, so much were they in awe of them, and several re-recorded them later, having become dissatisfied with their earlier readings, but increasingly, young cellists are less patient. Manker is presumably in his mid or late 40s; Bailey is 38.  Some CVNC readers may recall my review of a gifted then 12-year-old Durham cellist’s performance of them at Duke in July 2003; he left out many of the repeats but otherwise played all the scores.

Bailey’s recording seems to have instantly risen to be placed among the ranks of the esteemed or notable readings, some of which are iconic, with some on period and others on modern instruments. Unfortunately, many earlier recordings do not give any information about the instrument used. These include:

  • Anner Bylsma’s (correctly Bijlsma;, 1979, at age 45, the 1st ever on an early instrument, a 1699 Gofriller; he recorded them again in 1993 on the Smithsonian’s “Servais” Stradivarius),
  • Phoebe Carrai’s (2003, at age 48, on a 1690 anon. Italian cello),
  • Pau Casals’ (1936, at age 59 [Nos 2 & 3],  1938, at age 62 [Nos 1 & 6], & 1939 at age 63 [Nos 5 & 4]; Norman Lebrecht ranked this, the first recording ever, as one – 11th chronologically – of the 100 most significant recordings of the 20th century [pp. 172-3] – see my review of his book elsewhere in these pages.)
  • Pierre Fournier’s (1961, at age 55),
  • Maurice Gendron’s (1964, at age 44),
  • Matt Haimovitz’ (2001, at age 31),
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt's (1965, at age 36, part of the Complete Bach Edition),
  • Lynn Harrell’s (1985, at age 41),
  • Steven Isserlis’ (2007, at age 49),
  • Sigiswald Kuijken’s (2009, at age 65),
  • Gavriel Lipkind’s (2006, at age 29),
  • Yo-Yo Ma’s (1990, at age 35),
  • Mischa Maisky’s (correctly Miša Maiskis’, 1985, at age 37, released on video in 2007, and recorded again in 1994 at age 46, and yet again in 1999 at age 51),
  • Antonio Meneses’ (2004, at age 47),
  • Truls Mørk’s (2002, at age 41, on a 1723 Domenico Montagnana),
  • Jean-Guilhen Queyras’ (2007, at age 40, on a 1696 Gioffredo Cappa, fitted with metal rather than gut strings, with a companion DVD “Making of”+ “Suite No. 3”),
  • Mistislav Rostropovich’s (1991, at age 63, probably on his late-18th century Storioni, but perhaps on his 1711 Stradivarius; CD & video with comments and demonstrations at the keyboard preceding each suite, both issued 1995),
  • János Starker’s (the 5th time in 1991, at age 67, on his ca. 1705 Gofriller)
  • Jaap ter Linden’s (2002, at age 55),
  • Paul Tortelier’s (1960, at age 46, 1982, at age 68, and again on video in 1990 at age 76, ), and
  • Pieter Wispelwey’s (1998, at age 33, on a 1710 Barak Norman),

to list some in alphabetical, not ranked order, several of which I was able to hear to compare and contrast with these two.

There is much mis-, erroneous, and incomplete information swirling around about this music both in the booklets accompanying the various CDs and elsewhere. I will attempt to sort it out for our readers in as succinct a text as possible – exhaustive would be exhausting if not impossible, citing some specific examples of egregious errors along the way, in order to illuminate and place these two newest recordings in a relatively balanced and broader context and perspective. The autograph score does not exist.  The likely most trustworthy of the three pre-19th century manuscripts is a copy made by Anna Magdalena Bach ca. 1730 for J.S. Bach’s pupil, violinist George Heinrich Ludwig Schwanenberger, that contains some obvious and perhaps some less obvious errors. The other two are one made in 1726 by Johann Peter Kellner, organist and acquaintance of Bach, and one (1750 - 1800), the identity of whose two copyists is unknown, once owned by Johann Christoph Westphal, an organist and music collector, and they, too, contain some obvious and perhaps less obvious errors.  An autograph score of Suite No. 5 in a version for lute exists (S. 995). The most thorough summary of the history of the manuscripts with their current locations and catalogue numbers is found here.

This situation has led to more than 90 editions made to date by yet others, including some of the above-listed cellists, using one or another of the manuscripts as the base since the works re-surfaced in 1824, when they were initially treated and viewed as exercises. The one Casals bought in 1890 at age 13 in a second hand bookstore in his native Barcelona was an edition of the Anna Magdalena manuscript somewhat embellished by Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Grützmacher with a dust cover in French that had been added by Schwanenberger (Manker uses this French title for his CD). To get an idea of the complexity of the issue, readers can look here at one cellist’s attempt to sort things out in order to decide which edition to purchase. It is difficult to declare any performance authoritative, much as many cellists might like a reviewer to do so, when there is no authoritative score.

All the suites use standard baroque dance rhythms/tempi, which, along with the structure, texture, and tonal color dominate the melodic line, and follow the same standard order for their six movements, opening with a prelude, followed by an allemande, a courante, and a sarabande, and concluding with a gigue. Only in the fifth movement, the galanterie in the pattern, is there some overt variety, with two menuets da capo in Nos 1 and 2, two bourées da capo in Nos 3 and 4, and two gavottes da capo in Nos 5 and 6. In the hands of a lesser composer, this could easily be a prescription for repetition, monotony, and boredom, but you don’t even mind, or sometimes even notice, the internal repeats. There is, nevertheless, more subtle internal variety.  Four are in major keys, two (Nos 2 and 5) in minor.  The prelude to No. 5 is different from the others, resembling a French Ouverture and creating an illusion of polyphony, of a fugue even, with its texture. The preludes are more rhapsodic than the dance movements, and one each of the courantes and gigues (No. 5 in both cases; the French language notes – those in each language are by a different author rather than the same notes being translated into all 4 languages as is customary – accompanying the Gendron set erroneously say it is the courante in No. 3) is in the French style while the others are in the Italian. The preludes are progressively longer and more complex; the allemandes and sarabandes of the last three are progressively slower and diverge further and further from the original dance rhythms that are more closely respected in those of the first three.

Many cellists and musicologists have found an overarching architecture and progression through the key signatures to the whole rather than a mere gathering of independent pieces, like a song cycle rather than a collection of songs.  Nos. 1-3 explore standard playing techniques of the day while Nos. 4-6 explore more complex, innovative ones. No. 5 is marked scordatura, with the highest a string tuned down to G.  No. 6 is written for the violoncello piccolo, a smaller cello, similar to the so-called “half-size” ones (actually closer to 7/8 or 3/4) made for children, with a higher register and a fifth string tuned to e’ – the other 4 are tuned C, G, d, a, as on the standard cello. A few cite these characteristics to say that the set is a mere collection, however.  In spite of the consistency in all the manuscripts, not all cellists present the 6 suites in their numerical order. Curiously, both Manker and Bailey, like Starker, place the odd numbered ones in order on disk 1 and the even numbered ones in order on disk 2.  Rostropovich, who discusses this concept in his video, places Nos. 1, 4, & 5 on disk 1 and Nos. 2, 3, & 6 on disk 2 of his CD set, although the video presents them in order! Tortelier follows the same order in the 1983 recording, having presented them in order in 1960. Gendron also presents them out of order: Nos. 1, 4, & 6 on disk 1 and Nos. 2, 3, & 5 on disk 2. Maiskis presents Nos. 1, 4, & 5 on disk 1 and Nos. 2, 3, & 6 on disk 2 in his 1994 recording, and Nos. 1, 2, & 6 on disk 1 and Nos. 3, 4, & 5 on disk 2 in the 1999 one. Some of these out-of-order presentations may be the result of the more limited capacity of earlier CDs, but that ought not to present a problem now.  Bijlsma, Carrai, Fournier, Harrell, Isserlis, Kuijken, Mörk, Queyras, Wispelwey, and the Casals re-issue all present them in order.  Few play the 6th on its intended instrument: neither Manker nor Bailey do; but both Bijlsma and Wispelwey use early 18th century ones by unknown makers, South German and South Tyrol respectively. Carrai plays it on the 5-string ‘Marquis de l’Air d’oiseau’ cello, ca. 1775, lent by Montréal’s McGill Univ. Kuijken plays the entire set on a violoncello da spalla, an instrument held on the shoulder like a violin or viola.

There is a quiet depth and profundity to this music, contemplative and introverted, even in the more sprightly movements, something magical that makes it flow over, into, and through the listener in a way that the more brilliant and virtuosic sonatas and partitas for solo violin, stunning as they are, do not. It is difficult to imagine that these latter would make such a profound impression on and inspire a journalist on her/his first encounter with them to be so captivated by them, as was Eric Siblin, that s/he would spend years researching them and writing a book about them entitled simply “The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin” to form a pendant to Siblin’s The Cello Suites, reviewed elsewhere in these pages. Granted, there is less mystery about them to solve: their autograph score exists; and they were not the innovative scores that these, the first ever major works for solo cello, were. This is not to say that they are less worthy; they simply have a completely different effect on the listener; one tires more easily of display perhaps? Siblin took cello lessons and ultimately found and bought a copy of the Grützmacher edition in a second-hand bookshop in Brussels!  I’ve only acquired several different recordings…, though I’d not mind having more.

One thing about this music is that you (or at least I) never tire of listening to it even when doing so in such an intensive and attentive manner as preparing for this piece has required (some 10 different recordings, several more than once), although I do undeniably find some readings more pleasing and satisfying than others, but those may well not be the ones that most please and satisfy others. As the number of well-regarded recordings attests, the music allows for and tolerates individualized interpretations and a nearly infinite variety can result for numerous reasons. To begin with, the primary manuscript score contains almost no performance markings, and those in the other two manuscripts are deemed by scholars to have been added by someone other than J.S. Bach. In addition to the differences in approach of the musicians that this allows, and the differences that the order of presentation creates, the differences among the instruments can alter it strikingly. So can the choice of recording venue; many cellists in recent times, Bijlsma, Isserlis, Lipkind, Mørk, Queyras, and Wispelwey, for example, have chosen churches, Maiskis chose Palladio’s mid-16th century Villa Caldogno near Vicenza in Italy, Rostropovich chose the 12th century basilica of Ste Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay, France, and Carrai chose a small modern art exhibition and studio space, CREAR, in Argyll, Scotland, all options not available to earlier cellists like Casals, although he performed them live in such places whenever possible. The recording equipment and technology have also evolved and improved dramatically. The questions become: what does a new recording add to the available inventory (one blogger counted over 70!) and how does it compare with some existing ones taking all of these variables into account.

Bailey’s reading deserves the attention it has received. His approach is energetic, forceful in some of the faster movements, some of which seem faster than most although they aren’t by the timer.  It is often incisive even, seeming to emphasize the pulses as if searching for the peasant roots of the dance rhythms. The venue, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has a live acoustic - some readers may recognize it as the one used for the Beethoven Trip Project CD that I reviewed recently; and Bailey plays to fill the hall with sound. The instrument is nothing short of stunning. Bijlsma played a 1699 Gofriller for his reading, but 1979 recording technology wasn’t what today’s is: digital did not exist; and although his venue is a church (in Echting, Bavaria), it seems not as resonant as are this venue, Rostropovich’s, Mørk’s, Wispelwey’s, Manker’s, and Queyras’ churches and Carrai’s intimate modern exhibit hall/studio. Bijlsma’s interpretation seems to emphasize the melodic lines a bit more than Bailey’s does and to de-emphasize the rhythmic pulses, nonetheless strictly observed, that Bailey leans on producing a sweeter reading that is quite lovely, but less ‘grabbing.’ Carrai strikes a happy medium and more pleasant balance between the melodies and the less pronounced rhythmic pulses. Queyras’ reading is quite similar to Bijlsma’s, not surprisingly since he was Bijlsma’s student, but the metal setup makes the sound brighter and a bit less deep, rich, and warm.

Manker’s notes in the booklet accompanying his set are more personal than descriptive of the music, while the notes by Benjamin Folkman in the booklet accompanying the Bailey set are among the best such that I have seen for the works themselves. The notes by John Lutterman in the booklet accompanying Carrai’s recording strike an excellent balance between the scholarship and the general-listener audience.  Wispelway’s are good and interesting, but often more impressionistic and speculative than scholarly.  [He seemingly uses or relies heavily on the Kellner manuscript, which he references twice in the notes.  Some of his slow tempi in the sarabandes are achingly so.] This contributes to my favorable recommendation for the Bailey recording, in spite of its uncustomary order of presentation, and although, when the hype has faded and more time has passed, it may well not end up in the ranks of the very best, and to my need to characterize Manker’s as an interesting and enjoyable intimate personal statement that will regrettably probably not rise to reside among the greats, or perhaps not even garner the attention it deserves – it raises the thorny questions of how much is Bach, how much is Manker, and how much intervening creative editors. He might have been better served had he followed Rostropovich’s example and made a video with comments and demonstrations to explain his approach rather than a CD, and presented the suites in order.

©2010 Marvin J. Ward, revised & updated ©2011 & ©2012