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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suites for unaccompanied cello (ca. 1720) transcribed for viola

CD1 [57:03]
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV1007 [17:36]
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV1008 [19:21]
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV1009 [20:06]
CD2 [73:32]
Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV1010 [22:24]
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV1011 [22:55]
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV1012 [28:13]
Nobuko Imai (viola)
recorded in the Théâtre La Musica, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, June 1997 (Nos 1-3) and January 1999 (Nos 4-6)
PHILIPS 475 6219 [57:03 + 73:32]

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Strange that so many composers favoured the viola - think of Bach, Mozart, Dvořák, Hindemith … - but so few wrote much music for it. Strange too, given the beautiful sound they can create, that violists are the butt of innumerable silly jokes among orchestral musicians. The suggestion is, of course, that violists tend to hide in the middle of the orchestral texture, where (supposedly…) nothing much happens, and nothing much matters. And if you’re the shy type, you’re okay, cos there’s so little solo music written for your instrument.

Nobuko Imai demolishes all this nonsense by playing the six suites Bach wrote for unaccompanied cello up the octave - and how better to plug a conspicuous repertory gap with a towering masterpiece? - and by playing them with commanding - even extrovert - authority!

Non-technical readers may not be aware that the viola tunes its strings to the same C, G, D and A - each a fifth higher than the other - as the cello. So Imai’s ‘arrangement’ consists simply of writing the pieces out afresh in the alto (rather than bass) clef: absolutely no alterations are required. The only complications arise in the Sixth Suite, which was written for a five-string cello - a problem for a four-string cellist as much as for a four-string violist, and usually solved or rather bypassed by playing it on a standard instrument, even if that means a bit of a struggle!

Don’t assume that, simply because the ‘notes’ transfer so simply that it automatically follows that it ‘works’ as well. The cello’s lowest strings resonate powerfully, providing what passes for a sustained bass (but actually isn’t) in arpeggiated or contrapuntal cross-string writing. So, on the cello, the G major’s opening Prélude resonates sufficiently to sound almost like four-part organ harmony: and the C major’s Bourrées and Gigue have an appealingly rustic quality on account of the sheer weight of the bass voice. The viola just can’t match this, so you could argue that we get rather less overtly harmonic and rhythmic information, simply because of its smaller size. On the other hand, a modern cello (or, rather, a modern bow) makes quite a meal of multiple stops, whereas the viola produces a lot more attractive sound in such material, being far more forgiving, and better able to play three or four notes literally at the same time. And high lying lines sing every bit as well on the viola as the cello. So, all in all, a case of swings and roundabouts.

What matters most is that Nobuko Imai is the perfect ‘salesperson’. Her intonation is spotless, her sense of style is beyond reproach, and her characterising of the various dance movements judged to perfection. She bridges the gap between old-time expressive indulgence and latter-day historically-informed performance practice, and is likely to satisfy discerning listeners from both schools of thought.

I recommend this whole-heartedly. If you’ve already got the unaccompanied violin Sonatas and Partitas and the unaccompanied cello Suites, what better company for them than this? But, when you put it upon your CD shelves, remember to put it between them!

Peter J Lawson

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