March 14, 2024


Bach: Cello Suites (complete). Ailbhe McDonagh, cello. Steinway & Sons. $21.99 (2 CDs).

     Bach’s six suites for solo cello are more than a rite of passage for cellists. They are an invitation to sublimity, a chance not only to interpret the music but also to put one’s own stamp on it – frequently multiple times during one’s performing career, since the suites’ meaning and significance seem to change considerably over time as a performer gains familiarity with the music plus his or her own maturity and mastery. The same happens to be true for audiences: no matter how many cellists one hears in this music, there is always something new to discover, some way in which the tripartite experience (composer + performer + instrument) differs from all others and sheds new light on a listener’s perception.

     Just as Bach’s religious music transcends the Lutheran tradition in which it was created, so the cello suites and other instrumental works are unbound by time or geography – a reality further documented in the new Steinway & Sons recording featuring Ailbhe McDonagh, whose status as the first Irish cellist to record all six suites is a matter that is both of justifiable pride and wholly irrelevant to the music.

     McDonagh’s personal vision of the suites is a restrained Romantic one rather than one that is historically focused or determined to play the music as Bach and his contemporaries would have heard it. She does not hesitate to use crescendos and diminuendos, swells, rubato and other techniques of emphasis in order to bring out the underlying emotional connective tissue of the suites. This means that their foundational structure tends to be somewhat diminished: notably, the dancelike rhythmic elements of the majority of movements are lessened here, although scarcely absent. It also means that these performances are strongest in the slower and more-emotive portions of the suites: the Sarabande movements are deeply felt and very moving, with the unusual and profound one in Suite No. 5 – a movement wholly lacking in double stops and thus having an inherent purity of single-string sound – being a highlight of McDonagh’s cycle.

     Actually, there are highlights aplenty here. McDonagh plays an 1833 cello by Andrea Postacchini (1781-1862), who is far better known for his violins but whose larger string instruments (including violas, basses and guitars) also show remarkable, almost buttery smoothness of tone and evenness of sound production in all ranges. Certainly that is the case with McDonagh’s cello, which does not have quite the sonorous depth of a few other instruments in its lowest range but which is exceptionally consistent in sound all the way to its top notes – a distinct advantage for the Bach cello suites. McDonagh plays as if the cello is an extension of her thinking as well as her body: there is a sense of unity of player and played that gives the suites a wholly pleasurable sense of cohesion.

     McDonagh handles the suites’ technical demands with apparent ease: the complexities throughout No. 4, for example, and the string crossings in the first minuet of No. 2. Her cello’s sound works as well in Suite No. 5 (originally written for scordatura tuning) and Suite No. 6 (most likely composed for a five-stringed instrument and frequently played on one) as it does in the first four suites. The elegance and warmth of the performances come through as well in the few movements with a single melodic line (not only the Sarabande of Suite No. 5 but also the second minuets of Suites Nos. 1 and 2, the second bourrée of Suite No. 3, and the concluding gigue of Suite No. 4) as in the much-more-frequent movements employing double stops. Those same characteristics are actually evident in every movement of every suite – and they tend to overshadow individual movements’ lighter and brighter elements. The French overture that starts Suite No. 5, for example, is deeply emotional at the beginning but somewhat less convincing in the speedy fugue used for the latter part of the movement.

     It is always possible, of course, to nitpick any performance of these suites – and it is almost always unfair to do so. The best cellists make these works their own through a strong and consistent commitment to the music and a willingness to share that devotion (which does take on almost spiritual connotations) with listeners. McDonagh’s recording is clearly that of a performer at once highly skilled from a technical standpoint and highly thoughtful from an expressive one. Her rendition of the suites is quite convincing on its own terms – and certainly compares favorably with the many other first-rate recordings of these unsurpassed works.

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