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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

J. S. Bach, The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena, Matt Haimovitz

It goes without saying that Johann Sebastian Bach's "Cello Suites" are gemstones of the baroque chamber repertoire and a set of shining lights among works for cello solo from any period. There have been a good number of fine complete recordings since the advent of the LP and then the CD.

For all that the last note has surely not sounded; the book has not closed on a "proper" performance of the music. Matt Haimovitz gives us an insightful and exciting reading of the complete opus on his latest release, The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 555 2-CDs). Haimovitz recorded an acclaimed version some 15 years ago. That he returns again to the Suites today has something to do with a number of factors.

The most general one is that as an artist matures his or her approach to a special work can deepen and grow. That is undeniably true for Haimovitz. The search for a period authenticity is also a concern. Matt uses for the new recording a period cello, a baroque-style bow, which is notably flat rather than concave and so provides different results and affords different bowing possibilities. Further, Haimovitz plays a piccolo cello (with an additional high fifth string) on the sixth suite, after realizing that Bach's music there calls for varying intervals, many of which seem logically based on the open-stringed possibilities of that instrument.

Finally and perhaps most importantly Haimovitz turns to the manuscript of the Suites as presumably faithfully copied from Bach's original manuscript (now lost) by his second wife Anna Magdalena. Through following her phrasing-slurring notations to the letter and via other clues in the manuscript Haimovitz gives us some dramatically distinct phrasing, bowing and fingering somewhat at odds with a typical modern performance. He tunes his cellos down a bit from the modern A=440 and favors when possible open-string articulations as Anna Magdalena's copy and Bach's inventions imply.

For all that we get Haimovitz's total artistry, a deep resonance to the cello not heard quite like this in standard versions, and an expressivity that is very palpable and rugged at times, without a romantic sort of rubato so much as a baroque one, which is to say that the sort of bravura of the post-Beethoven cello is replaced by a different sort of emotiveness, born of the resonance of the open strings and a restrained vibrato, with the up-down bowing dynamics of the flat bow and the phrasing of Anna's version suggesting a performance of great clarity and zest. There is a rough-hewn, exuberant beauty to it all. And not a stitch of sentimentality.

And so we get a version of the Cello Suites that stands out as rousing, expressive and singularly devoted to the special timbrality of the period instrument and bow, the open sound of gut strings, the adventure and part separations that Anna Magdelena's clues, cues and queues suggest to Matt.

It is not only a convincing performance. It is a thrilling one. Anybody who loves this music will gain new insights into it with this new set. There is fabulous artistry from Haimovitz and a singing realization that Bach himself would no doubt appreciate. It is a landmark recording. Get a copy of this and soar along!

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