Bach: The Cello Suites (Hyperion)
Five years ago, Time Out London tagged cellist Steven Isserlis “Classical Artist of the Year.” The long-locked Englishman earned the honor as much through his philanthropy and extra-musical activities as his sublime playing. He writes quirky children’s books (Why Beethoven Threw the Stew), emphatically champions unsung repertoire and has commissioned several new works to attract young players.
Now, as a present for himself, Isserlis has recorded the solo cello repertory’s immovable touchstone: the six Bach Suites. Staying true to the Baroque ideal of free instrumental expression, he stamps his own unconventional wisdom on these almost three-centuries-old standards..
No two interpreters will ever agree on the Allemande in Suite No. 2; Rostropovich nimbly moves about while Casals’s romantic notions render this dance a funeral procession. Isserlis , for his part, cuts loose with a rollicking, stylized jig that puts to bed the prior brooding Prelude. He teases out the individual personalities in each of the dances and trumpets them, molding each suite into a fuller, organic whole.
Isserlis impeccably controls his slow movements, and his focused, restrained use of vibrato, as in the Suite No. 5’s spare Sarabande, is perfectly in character. (He isn’t one whose vibrato in Bach sounds like Saint-Saëns in disguise.)
As a bonus, Isserlis pays homage to Casals with the dreamy Catalan folk composition “The Song of the Birds”; he also performs three different, early versions of the Prelude from the First Suite copied variously by Bach’s wife, a friend and a prominent music publisher. Isserlis always fills out the picture.—Bryant Manning