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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cello Suites
No. 1 in G major BWV 1007 [19.19]
No. 3 in G major BWV 1009 [26.29]
No. 5 in G major BWV 1011 [24.57]
No. 2 in G major BWV 1008 [20.01]
No. 4 in G major BWV 1010 [23.17]
No. 6 in G major BWV 1012 [30.38]

Robert Cohen, cello
Rec: 1990
REGIS RECORDS RRC 2001 [145.54]

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Bach's cello suites are arguably the greatest works ever written for solo cello. Recorded by any cellist worth his salt, these works contain some of the most poignant and emotional music Bach ever wrote.

Robert Cohen has chosen to record these suites at relatively slow tempi, and plays all repeats. His reading of these works is highly personal, and his flexibility concerning tempi can be a bit disturbing at first - in some movements he plays the repeats much slower than the first expositions. Nevertheless, this gives this version a unique individuality that many other cellists lack. Cohen plays the music without showing off; it is clear that he is interested in the inner music that lies under the surface of these works.

Cohen plays the preludes with a freedom that mirrors their improvisatory nature. These movements are all less structured than the other parts of the suites, and call for a performance that reflects this. Cohen seems not to be married to his tempi, and takes many liberties in the preludes, but, in most case, his choices are judicious. The long melancholy prelude of the 5th suite resounds here in all its darkness, as Cohen plays it slowly and deliberately, yet forcefully as well. The first section of this movement, almost lugubrious, contrasts well with the second, more rhythmic section.

He is very expressive in the slower movements, the allemandes and sarabandes, which are some of Bach's most poignant instrumental movements. However, his slow tempi do not always work - the sarabande of the 1st suite sounds just a bit too slow, and the melodic structure seems a bit fragmented as a result of this. But the haunting sarabande of the 3rd suite takes on new colours at this slow tempo, as Cohen allows the notes at the ends of phrases to decay much more than most performers do. His performance of the sarabande in the 5th suite is, surprisingly, disappointing. I expected much more for this, the most beautiful movement of the six suites, and the only one that is truly monophonic. Cohen sounds too rigid here, as if he didn't feel comfortable with this slow, measured movement. In his hands it becomes plodding. However, the sarabande in the 2nd suite, similar in form to that of the 5th suite (and the only other minor sarabande in the set), is near-perfect - if only he had played the 5th suite sarabande at the same tempo, it, too, would have been ideal.

His playing of the more lively movements, such as the minuets and courantes, is energetic, yet often unhurried. With, again, relatively slow tempi, he manages to express a great deal of buoyancy. Yet the bourrées in the 3rd suite sound just a little bit too slow, as if they were searching for the right feeling. The gavottes in the 5th suite are quite nice, as Cohen has excellent balance between the high notes and low notes, providing the right feel for this dance movement. The boisterous courante in the 2nd suite is brilliantly performed; Cohen has energy to spare here, and doesn't hesitate to show it. The courante of the 4th suite is another fine movement; again, this is one that calls for a great deal of verve, and Cohen meets the call perfectly.

His phrasing sounds totally natural in most movements. The courante of the 3rd suite is especially nice, with its runs of short notes interspersed with more flexible, melodic runs, as is the final gigue of the same suite. The second gavotte of the 5th suite is a fine example of his excellent phrasing, as he negotiates the beautiful melodic passages of this movement with grace and agility. The prelude to the 2nd suite is another movement where Cohen's phrasing stands out - in this lyrical movement, he perfectly captures the felling of the music, making one almost forget the instrument and hear only the melody itself.

Cohen has a fine use of vibrato - unlike some cellists whose vibrato sounds like it is a case of St. Vitus' dance, Cohen uses it sparingly, and with great discernment, adding it as an ornament rather than using it on every possible note. His instrument has a nice sound, although it sounds a bit rough in the 6th suite. Also, it is recorded a bit too close, erasing much of its depth.

All in all, this is a fine recording of some of the greatest music Bach ever wrote. While I still have to admit a preference for Anner Bylsma first recording of the suites and Peter Wispelwey's second recording, this one is up there with the best.

An excellent, very personal recording of some of Bach's greatest instrumental music. Definitely one of the best versions of these pieces.

Kirk McElhearn

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