Sophie Webber is a British cellist now residing in San Diego, California. She recorded her debut album of the Bach Cello Suites in 2018 and titled it "Escape." Now, for something slightly different, Ms. Webber presents an unusual view of the suites, this time for cello and accompanying choir. On the present disc, she plays Suites 1 and 3 with choral arrangements of her own design. Given that every cellist who has ever lived during the age of recordings has already made an album of the Bach suites, including Ms. Webber herself, the novelty (and beauty) of offering them with vocal augmentation seems inspired. The results are lovely.
The exact dates Bach wrote the suites is unclear, but it was probably somewhere between 1717-23. One thing that is certain, though, is that the suites are 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, especially the first suite, used in films and television commercials; I mean, even Bach reused some of the tunes for other instrumental works.
Anyhow, the suites each contain six dance movements, and one of the remarkable things about them is the composer's ability to make the single cello sound like several instruments, with melody and accompaniment. Only this time out, Ms. Webber's cello really IS accompanied by other instruments, namely human voices in the persons of eight members of the Choir of the Ascension, Chicago. Together, they "make a joyful noise" (Psalm 100).
As Ms. Webber puts it, "The vision of this album is to offer an interpretation of the Suites which highlights the implied harmonies and rhythmic characters of Bach's solo string works and potentially invites new listeners into the world of Bach and classical music."
Ms. Webber's playing is gentle, fluid, and expressive, nicely integrating with the choir. Her performances are happy and invigorating and bring out all the joy in the music. She has no doubt been playing these suites for some time and knows them backwards. The fact that she has devoted her first two albums to the suites attests to this fact. The chorus adds to Bach's many moods, and Ms. Webber's performance brings out the nuances in the various movements.
Then we have the slightly less familiar but still popular Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009. While purists may look down upon messing with Bach's creations, it seems to me entirely felicitous that Ms. Webber should provide us with yet another fine set of accompaniments to Bach's solo suites. It's not like it hasn't been done any number of times before, with piano, viola, etc., and with transcriptions for violin, guitar, trumpet, organ, and practically every other instrument in the band. Bach himself frequently borrowed his own material and reworked it for other instruments in later compositions. Besides which, Bach often alternated writing secular and sacred music, and since the suites are quite worldly in nature, the choral background invests them with an almost religious tone despite their lively presentation. It's kind of the best of two worlds.
My one quibble may seem petty and is maybe a backhanded compliment: The disc contains only about forty-two minutes of music, with plenty of space left over for another of the suites. The fact is, though, this album is so entertaining, you may find it over before you know it.
Producers Paul French and James Kallembach and engineer Christopher Willis recorded the music at Guarneri Hall & Bon Chapel, Chicago, Illinois in September and November 2019. The sound places the cello squarely in the middle of the ensemble. Although the singers don't always seem entirely of a piece with the soloist, they do evoke an appropriately resonant, ethereal presence. Clarity, articulation, and detailing are well presented, too, so the whole makes pleasant listening.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: