Bach Cello Suites review – revelatory reboot | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week

Rachel Podger
(Channel Classics)
Violinist Podger makes Bach’s suites sound as if they were written for her instrument, such is her buoyancy and agility

Isn’t Rachel Podger a violinist? What’s she doing recording Bach’s Cello Suites? That’s the question if you see the cover before you hear this album. But do those things in reverse order, you might instead ask why you’ve never heard this Bach violin music before.

JS Bach: Cello Suites/Rachel Podger album artwork
JS Bach: Cello Suites/Rachel Podger album artwork Photograph: Publicity Image

There’s a precedent for borrowing Bach’s music, set not least by the composer himself, an inveterate and pragmatic recycler of his own works. Viola players have been appropriating these suites for years. In Podger’s hands, however, they sound altogether new, not like a higher-pitched copy of the familiar cello works but like something written for her own instrument.

Played on the cello, these sets of stylised dances sit companionably with you beside the ballroom floor. Here, on the violin, they drag you up on to your feet and whirl you around. That’s partly to do with the buoyancy of Podger’s playing, full of agile twists and turns, and partly because some movements naturally flow faster on the violin. The G major opening of Suite No 1, for example, sounds even more sunny and affirmatory, the resonances bright and high. The payoff is that some of the searching introspection that cellists find in the darker suites is sacrificed; in No 5, for example, where it would be simply impossible for the violin to create the same space around the notes of the Sarabande as the more deeply resonant cello.

Suite No 6, written for a five-stringed instrument, has a wider range of pitch, and rather than go sky-high, Podger and her recording engineers patch in the lowest notes on a viola – a little naughty, perhaps, but it works. This disc is not a replacement for any of the Bach already on your shelves, but it’s a joyous addition to it.

Also out this week

Are yet more courses of a Bach string-music feast. Alban Gerhardt’s new recording of the Cello Suites, as written, is both confident and confiding. Skip Renaud Capuçon and David Fray’s bland take on the Violin Sonatas, in favour of Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, on zinging form in a double CD of the Violin Concertos, plus reconstructed ensemble works. Or for Bach with a twist there is Tim Kliphuis’s disc Concertos, in which the fine Dutch violinist is joined by the rest of his jazz trio, plus orchestra, for Brandenburg, playing with Bach’s themes in freewheeling, improvisatory style.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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