"The Cello Suites: According to Magdalena" by Matt Haimovitz. (Courtesy of Pentatone)

Matt Haimovitz is a gifted cellist, whose restless searching for different modes of communication and expression on the instrument has led him in many interesting directions. In his second time recording the Bach Suites (his first was 15 years ago), he has found religion — baroque religion. He set his instrument up with gut strings, tuned it down a half step, acquired a baroque bow and threw out all his modern editions, studying only a copy of the work by Bach’s wife (no holograph manuscript survives). He sounds like any number of baroque players, with all the value judgments that implies.

For me, these performances invoke the least appealing aspects of early-music string playing — halting phrasing, frequent blurring and crunching of fast passages, and swells on pretty much every long note. Objective beauty is certainly possible with a baroque setup. But the aesthetic of this style is to turn music as much as possible into actual speech, with an unsteady “improvisatory” pace, occasional mumbling, sudden bursts of thought, sighs, etc. This is temporarily interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. The basic verities of musical expression — pulse, rhythm, melody, harmony and purity of sound — belong to no school or period, and a performer disrupts them (for whatever imagined historical justification) at his peril.

Listening to these performances is not unlike standing near a busy street with traffic whizzing by; the notes come randomly and you always hear them approach and recede, even at high speed. Anner Bylsma (on Sony) shows that this style does not preclude clear rhetoric and an attractive sound. The one advantage baroque players have in this cycle is the use of a cello piccolo in Suite No. 6. With the fifth string, the virtuoso difficulties are much more manageable, and Haimovitz sounds almost playful. The pizzicato reprise of the first gavotte would certainly have shocked Bach, but the effect of a large lute is charming. For the rest, though, if you prefer your Bach in this style, know that this performer has embraced it fully and impetuously.

Inbal Segev's recording of Bach's Cello Suites. (Courtesy of Vox)

More to my taste is the set by Inbal Segev. Here we have exemplary modern cello playing, which recognizes baroque stylistic ideas without making a fetish of them. Segev’s instrument is older than Bach (a Ruggieri from 1673), but she produces vibrant notes and offers long, lovely phrases without stinting on smaller articulations. And she could sing even more but, in a nod to historical practice, often chooses simpler fingerings in the lower positions, using more open strings. This breaks up rather than enhances the line, but Segev’s bow technique makes the seams all but disappear. She inserts her own tasteful ornaments here and there and uses the scordatura (tuned-down A-string) in the Suite No. 5. But this recording is not about making points; it’s built for repeated listening. The musical pleasures of steady rhythm, pure intonation, a clean start to each note, instrumental virtuosity and beauty of sound always carry the day.

The Academy of Arts and Letters in New York is the go-to place to record this music. Both sets were made there, as well as others by Bylsma, Janos Starker and Zuill Bailey. Of these two, I have to say I prefer the slightly more realistic sound picture David Frost and Richard King have given Haimovitz. Da-Hong Seetoo has bulked up Segev’s fine sonority more than necessary.

Bach Cello Suites
Inbal Segev

Vox Classics

Matt Haimovitz