Bach: Cello Suites (CD review)
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.
Meet the Staff
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.