With a little over an hour of Bach’s compositions for cello and viola da gamba performed exquisitely by Shirley Hunt, this CD is the first series to feature Bach’s cello suites and viola da gamba sonatas side by side, recorded by the same artist. With commendable technical felicity and imaginative spark, Hunt is luminescent in her delightful debut solo recording. The sound quality is excellent.
Bach’s cello suites have been performed by the finest cellists. Long gone are the times when these pieces were considered primarily for exercise and practice. They are now regarded as the cornerstone of the cello repertoire. Perhaps the most noticeable figure for performing these suites in an almost ritualistic fashion, performing one each day as part of his practice, is Pablo Casals (Naxos 8.110915-16; EMI transfer reviewed here
). The main difference between Hunt and Casals lies in the tonal qualities, as Hunt uses a 1775 William Foster Sr. baroque cello. In general, Hunt’s bowing tends to weigh a little heavier on the strings; this can be heard most clearly in the Courante
of the fourth suite where a more lithe approach would lift this joyous piece. However, both share a boldness and romanticism. On this CD, Hunt’s recording of the fourth suite is rich, captivating and full-bodied. This is technically demanding — the key of E-flat means that the cellist has to use many extended left hand positions to make the transitions smooth and seamless. Hunt combines intelligent phrasing with liberating zest. There is depth and density in the Sarabande
which is taken at a very slow pace; slower than Casals. The outcome is a longing and languorous sound. Hunt’s Gigue
is appropriately jig-like, but remains a little weighed down due to her slurred bowing.
Interspersing the fourth and first cello suites there is a sparkling performance of Bach’s Sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord
(played by Ian Pritchard) No. 3 in G minor
. This operates as a refreshing interlude. Resoundingly sociable and conversational, Hunt and Pritchard are crisp and cheerful in their mastery of the exciting cascades and intriguing counterpoint. The opening of the Vivace
is accorded to the bass viol. As for the the Adagio
(in the key of B flat major) two upper parts are allowed to interweave forming a wistful gossamer. This is capped by a fitful, flourishing Allegro
which gives command to the harpsichord and reaches its ending amid both tension and repose. You can hear more from Ian Pritchard —an undoubtedly talented performer — do seek out his first solo CD of 16th
Century Venetian virginal music entitled L’arpicordo
. It is on Morphic Resonance Music.
Returning with Bach’s charmingly familiar arpeggio-chords in the Prelude
to the first cello suite in G major; Hunt is secure and content throughout. A little more contemplative quietude would have suited her highly redolent style as some runs in the Allemande
lose their connection to the piece as a whole. In the first Menuet
Hunt tends to glide over the G major chord which needs to be bowed so that each note is enjoined. It must be noted that Hunt’s tight phrasing remains distinctive, particularly in the fourth suite. I particularly like her pace and crispness for the Courante
which is pithy and light-hearted. An impressive warmth and creaminess comes through the cello, making listening to this suite seem like an indulgence. The sorrowful Sarabande
is played with profound sincerity; one thinks of Mary’s lamenting face in Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Finishing with Bach’s charming Gigue,
Hunt mixes elegance with frivolity.
Masterwork Index: Cello suites