Bach: Cello Suites (CD review)

Six Suites for Violoncello Solo. Ovidiu Marinescu, cello. Navona Records NV5840 (two-disc set).

You may recall that last year I reviewed a fine, two-disc set of Bach's Six Cello Suites by Zuill Bailey on Telarc. At about the same time, Romanian cellist Ovidiu Marinescu recorded his own renditions of the suites for Navona Records, just recently released and reviewed here. They make another provocative and welcome addition to the Bach catalogue of Suites, and they join the ranks of not only Bailey's recording but those of Rostropovich, Ma, Casals, Fournier, Schiff, Starker, Gendron, Tortelier, Mork, Isserlis, and others.

Bach's Six Suites for unaccompanied cello are quite extraordinary, and they might well be familiar even to listeners not acquainted with much of the composer's music. After all, most of us have heard this material used in films and television commercials; heck, even Bach reused some of the tunes for other instrumental works. The thing is, though, the complete six suites make for a lengthy run if you try to sit through them all at once. I doubt that Bach ever intended for anybody to listen to them more than a few at a time, which is why music on CD is always handy; you can listen to as much or as little as you choose or program it your own way.

Anyhow, the Suites contain six dance-like movements each. One of the most remarkable things about them is the composer's ability to make the single cello sound like several instruments, with melody and accompaniment, which Mr. Marinescu executes as well as anybody. Naturally, it also helps to have a good recording to capture the varying subtleties of the music and the performances, and Navona do a pretty good job of it.

As usual, I didn't try listening to all of them at once; that might have overwhelmed me. And, as I say, I doubt that Bach expected anybody to play them all at one sitting (although there is some evidence of interconnections among the pieces, so, who knows, maybe Bach did want them played consecutively). So, I listened to them one or two Suites at a time and found them quite enjoyable.

Marinescu's renderings of these works struck me as reasonably relaxed, stylish, and refined, yet with much personal character. While the soloist seems to place a premium on precise execution above all else, there is also a sense of pleasure and animation in the performances, with clean articulation and rhythmically dynamic cadences. In the process, Marinescu catches Bach's varying moods of joy, meditation, lyricism, amiability, swagger, exuberance, solemnity, and regality at least as well as most of his competition (even giving us two alternative endings to the Prelude of Suite No. 2).

Navona recorded the music at Rose Recital Hall in the Fisher-Bennet Hall, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 2009-2010. The sound they obtain is crisp and clear, fairly close up, with excellent definition. There isn't a lot of warmth to the sound, however, so it's mainly the disc's clarity we can appreciate here. Still, the sound is seldom too forward, bright, or edgy, and it comes across with great immediacy and realism if played back at an appropriate level.

If I have a slight preference for the smoother, more ambient sound of the Telarc recording with Bailey, well, that's just me. The audiophile may prefer the sound of the Navona set better.

Navona accommodate the six suites in traditional fashion, three to a disc on two discs, Nos. 1-3 on disc one and Nos. 4-6 on disc two. They enclose the two discs in a Digipak container, with no booklet insert and virtually no printed notes beyond the recording information. Be that as it may, if you put disc one in your computer, you can access a twenty-seven-page informational booklet with background on Bach and his suites (written by Marinescu himself), plus the scores, information on the artist, his other recordings, and the recording company. This digital readout may not be as convenient as having a printed booklet in front of you, but it's certainly thorough.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa