by Karl Nehring
J.S. Bach: (CD1) Cello Suite No. 1 in G major BWV 1007; Cello Suite No. 3 in C major No. 3 in C major BWV 1009; (CD2) Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1005; Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011; (CD3) Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major BWV 1010; Cello Suite No. 6 in D major BWV 1012. Maya Beiser, cello. Islandia Music Records IMR012
The American cellist May Beiser (b. 1963) has brought us a recording of Bach’s Cello Suites that is unusual in several ways. For example, JJP has reviewed two recordings of the complete set in past installments of Classical Candor, one by Zuill Bailey on Telarc (reviewed here) and the other by Ovidiu Marinescu on Navona (reviewed here). Both are two-CD sets, and although JJP noted some slight differences in their sonic characteristics, both were recorded in straightforward stereophonic sound. But when you remove the shrink wrap and unfold the cardboard cover, you will discover that it holds not two but rather three CDs plus a booklet with an essay by Ms. Beiser that reveals some further surprises about her approach to both the music and the sound.
Of her approach to the music, she writes: “Embodying the spatial universe of Bach’s Cello Suites, I move away from the solemn transmission of a tradition. I look to expand the realm surrounding the artist and instrument. With this album I offer you my living, breathing voice and that of my cello anew. I spent 2022, my 60th year of life, immersed in recording, and rerecording, deconstructing and decontextualizing, experimenting and exploring sounds, reverberations, harmonics in my converted barn in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, engaging with Bach’s Cello Suites. Having dedicated the past 35 years to creating new music, work that reimagines the cello on a vast canvas in multiple disciplines, I radically departed from the conventional classical cello sound. Yet, the Suites were ingrained in my daily practice. Even as I was getting ready to perform a new work by Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, or David Bowie, I would still begin every day playing a movement from the Suites. Over the years I was experimenting with the process of unlearning the doctrine I was taught about this music, until last year when I took the time to relearn it anew.”
As for the sound, Infinite Bach has been has released it in both a spatial audio (available on Apple Music) and binaural mix (other media, including the CD release) with the goal of creating an immersive listening experience. Beiser used the acoustics of the room she recorded in to create layers of sound acoustically. She writes of the process, “I brought my longtime sound engineer and collaborator, Dave Cook, to the space and we started exploring the acoustic environment. I considered how the space itself uncovers, informs and reshapes my interpretation of the Bach Suites, feeding back the music to me as I play and record it. We mixed many microphones placed at various distances in the resonant space to emphasize nuances in overtones, reflections, and reverberations. Analyzing the multichannel recording, identifying and accentuating the natural drones and harmonics, we further reinforced the resonances and macro harmonic structure of the music. In the spatial audio mix, we aimed to bring the listening experience into the room; guiding the listener through the virtual space as the music infinitely evolves around them.” Listeners can get a sense of her approach from both a musical and sonic perspective from videos that Ms. Beiser has posted on YouTube here as well as here. To get a sense of the binaural mix, listening through headphones is the best bet. As to the significance of the water showers, well…
Clearly, this is not just another traversal of the Bach Cello Suites. It is a highly personal account recorded in an unusual fashion. For my own listening to Infinite Bach, I generally preferred headphones over speakers, which is highly unusual. But either way, what I heard was a large, resonant sound – a cello filling a large space with the dancing energy of Bach. It was certainly a different sound than that of Starker on Mercury Living Presence, my faithful standard in this music for many years. In comparison to the Beiser recording, the Starker recording sounds drier, more focused, more straightforward – not to say that Starker lacks energy or passion, both of which he certainly brings to the music in abundance – but the combination of Beiser’s generally slower, more overtly expressive interpretive approach, combined with the vast resonant soundfield created by the unusual engineering approach, results in a much different way for the listener to experience this wondrous music of Bach.
Although I suppose there will be some who will dismiss this new release as overly indulgent on both musical and sonic terms, I am not one of them. I will confess that the “shower” video really baffled me, but a silly YouTube video does not mean the album itself is silly. Ms. Beiser is a truly gifted musician, she digs deeply into this music, and she offers us a different perspective on music that can unfortunately seem dry and academic if we do not give it our close attention, which Infinite Bach aims to seduce us into doing. I truly delight in both the Starker and Beiser recordings; indeed, Beiser's is the first I have come across (and I have listened to many) that I have decided to file it on my shelf next to the Starker set. It's a keeper.