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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Six Suites for solo cello (1717-1723)
CD 1 [59.58]
Suite No. 1 in G major [17.19]
Suite No. 2 in D minor [20.39]
Suite No. 3 in C major [21.32]
CD 2 [79.48]
Suite No. 4 in E flat major [24.00]
Suite No. 5 in C minor [24.46]
Suite No. 6 in D major [30.51]
Wolfgang Boettcher (cello)
rec. Wyastone, Monmouth, October 2001
NIMBUS NI 5834/5 [59.58 + 79.48]

Experience Classicsonline


Now I know what you’re thinking. Not another recording of the Bach cello suites. There are, after all, at least twenty that could be obtained at present. You have your favourite and that’s that. Well Wolfgang Boettcher begs to disagree.

The First Suite which is the shortest, sets the pattern: six movements beginning with a Prelude including an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande then a Minuet or a Bourrée or two or a Gavotte ending in a Gigue in contrasting compound time. The key stated tends to be the one adhered to throughout the suite except that the fifth movement will have a contrasting key in the middle section. I like a slightly free approach in the Preludes and Sarabandes. By ‘free’ I mean with some rubato but not too much. I also like a sense of architecture, of building through a lengthy movement and with definite dynamics which, Bach did not include on the whole in his scores. Immediately it struck me - and this is even more personal than usual - that Boettcher did not bring out, what are for me, these necessities; certainly not as much as I wanted or as much as in other versions. In other words I prefer a slightly ‘romanticized’ performance bringing out some of the ‘dreaminess’ of the music. Boettcher is quite ‘up-tempo’ in the Prelude and Allemande and does not linger on details but is constantly moving forward.

I was however beginning to reform my opinion when a young ex-pupil, Nadine, who is a conservatoire cellist popped in and over a little ‘drop’ we listened to the Second Suite, which she had just studied, in Bach’s most moving key, D minor. She started to talk about the ‘wow’ factor in the performance that had, I must admit, eluded me especially in the Gigue movement. Indeed with the score in front of me I found this a most involving performance with ideal tempi and expression. Or was I wooed by an expert who also happened to be very attractive. Anyway I pass on these comments to show if you needed it, how difficult it is to form a view of a performance which a fine professional player has honed after many years of work and thought. So who is Wolfgang Boettcher?

He was born in 1935 and has a distinguished career behind him as concerto soloist, chamber musician with the Brindisi Quartet, teacher and festival director. As he himself comments in his curious and fascinating essay he has lived with and studied these works for fifty years. He made the recording in 2001 but it was not until this past autumn - the essay being dated Oct 28th 2008 - that he revisited his sessions in preparation for the discs’ eventual release. As he points out, the CD affords us a snapshot “one stage of a musician who wishes to approach ever nearer to the wonder of this music”.

The baroque cello he uses by Matteo Goffriller -Venice 1722, comes into its own in the wonderful third suite in the resonant key of C major. This is especially the case in two of my favourite movements: the closing Bourrée and the Gigue. He uses a baroque bow and there is real sense of, to quote my newly acquired female expert “the earthiness of the strings”. Calum MacDonald in his detailed and useful notes describes the suite as “especially virtuoso”. Boettcher throws more light on this, telling us that he has “developed away from a broad, beautiful, uniform legato sound to ever more clarity, declamation and diversity”.

But I still had another niggling doubts about what I was hearing. The Fourth Suite helped to clinch it. I heard Nadine struggling with the tuning – E flat is a very tricky key on the cello - as she played for me the wonderful opening Prelude. I then went back to an old LP version played by Casals. By contrast, for Boettcher it seems all so easy and matter-of-fact. This is a serene and elegant suite yet he lacks that dangerous quality – that true excitement. For me there is little in the way of ‘wow’ factor. And then there’s the shock of hearing the second Bourrée which acts as the middle section of the fifth movement played pizzicato. He does this in the same place in the Sixth Suite. Boettcher makes a case out for this in his notes having tried out many possibilities before deciding on playing certain movements in this way.

No one can really say for whom these rare works were originally composed. Their inspiration might have been the Rosary Sonatas of Heinrich Biber which were probably composed in 1680s. These extraordinary pieces employ fourteen different ‘scordatura’ tunings which means tuning up or down certain strings to obtain differing chords and sonorities. In the Fifth Suite Bach asks for the upper string to be tuned down a whole tone creating a darker sound especially in chordal passages. Oddly enough the haunting Sarabande is one of the few movements in the suites which has no harmony notes but simply a very moving and slightly despairing and angular melody. Boettcher is especially good here. This is the central panel in a suite that seems to mark a crisis point for Bach and in the tragic key of C minor. Even the Gigue ends with a lack of optimism. This is also the only French-style suite with its typically rather stiff opening to a bipartite Prelude. It’s also the only suite to survive in Bach’s hand albeit as a much ornamented lute arrangement. Calum MacDonald points out that this version for lute may give us a clue as to how Bach expected his performers to elaborate on the written note. I’m afraid however that I find Boettcher’s performance of this suite generally fails to hold my attention.

The Sixth Suite is the longest of all mainly due to the Allemande which is twice the length of that in the Second Suite.  Immediately it begins with its bright and rhythmic Prelude you are in a brave new world and D major fulfills that promise. In addition this suite is at a higher pitch. Indeed it may have been composed for an instrument called a ‘piccolo cello’ - now unknown - which was tuned considerably higher. Much of it is notated in the tenor clef. Modern players have to get around this by using conventional tuning but always stretching up onto the instrument’s neck. I am not sure that Boettcher is entirely successful in this work in regard to tuning especially in the double-stopping passages and in tonal quality.

Despite my criticisms of these performances there are undoubtedly highlights. The freely, improvisatory Preludes of the First and Third suites which Boettcher plays magically. Then again there’s the final Gigue of the Sixth, the Sarabande of the Fifth and the Allemande’s of the Third and Fourth suites. Nevertheless I will not be keeping this recording but handing it onto my pupil. It is in the nature of taste and criticism, that Nadine really enjoys Boettcher’s playing. She knows much more about the cello than I will ever forget.

Gary Higginson




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