Bach: 6 suites a violoncello solo, Sonate à cembalo è viola da gamba

Wieland Kuijken violoncello, violoncello piccolo, basse de viole, Piet Kuijken harpsichord
210:00 (3 CDs)
Arcana A383

Every cellist will have their own view on the interpretation of the six unaccompanied suites. I have my own distinctive ideas, developed over some 50 years since struggling with the first suite – on modern cello, of course – as a schoolboy barely out of short trousers. Kuijken, in this re-issue of the recording made in 2001-02, takes a very personal, relaxed and reflective interpretation of these works. Allemandes and sarabandes are especially unhurried, although courantes and other subsequent movements retain their dance spirit, Kuijken adopting a detached, at times almost spiccato-like bow stroke for many movements. The text of the early ms sources is strictly adhered to, with little if any added ornamentation. Not only that, the chordal passages, as at the end of the Prelude of Suite II, are played as written, without any of the customary elaboration into arpeggio figuration. Perhaps the most difficult suite to interpret convincingly is Suite IV in E flat, a key which gives hardly any opportunity to exploit the natural resonances of the cello’s open strings. Fortunately Kuijken’s Amati instrument, no doubt aided by a good recording acoustic, helps to negate this problem. The sombre quality of Suite V in C Minor, however, is well captured, with the instrument’s resonances enhanced by the required tuning of the top string down to G. In contrast, Kuijken gives Suite VI, for the five-string violoncello piccolo, its bright, airy texture that is needed for this work.

Perhaps because of the very generous tempi of many of the movements, there was not room for more than two suites on disc 2; so Suite V, together with the three gamba sonatas, appears on disc 3 of the set. These sonatas receive a more conventional reading, with Wieland on a 7-string Bertrand instrument with Piet Kuijken playing a particularly full-sounding copy of a late Baroque German harpsichord. Piet makes his harpsichord (which is well balanced in the recording) sing, and his phrasing carefully matches that of the gamba.

It is difficult to recommend one recording over another, for there are so many HIP versions from which to make a choice, from the sensible to the ridiculous. Both Wispelwey (at Cöthen pitch A=392) and Sigiswald Kuijken (on viola da spalla) are really interesting musical concepts, while this more conventional recording by the latter’s brother (at A=415) I feel ranks highly against many of the others, though not all will appreciate some of his more his leisurely tempi. If you prefer the whacky, there is even Pandolfo on viola da gamba (with suitable transpositions) – or even two recordings on marimba! Certainly Wieland Kuijken is one to consider, even if you have another, though everything he does is not always to my taste.

Ian Graham-Jones