Rachel Podger Plays Bach’s—Wait For It—Cello Suites!

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

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Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 10

When Rachel Podger recorded the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin—for the second time—in 2001, it was a subtle-yet-radiant effort; certainly one of the finest and most endearing recordings of these works and perhaps one of the first to meaningfully transcend the Historically Informed Performance niche. Instead of giving us her third recording of these works (not that I would mind), she has turned to the Suites for solo cello for her most recent recording. That seems almost logical, if slightly unnecessary. Then again what with art not being about things that are necessary per se, that’s not a problem. And Podger knows well enough to address the issues head-on in her liner notes, “Cello Suites on the Violin: Legitimate or Loony?”

We know what side of that false dichotomy she comes down on; we’re holding the answer in our hands. In any case, it’s hardly a question of legitimacy when every recording of the Goldberg Variations on a Steinway constitutes as much an act of transcription as playing a cello part on the violin. It’s only a matter of results. So what we get is a very tasteful, clean—and most of all—effortless reading of the suites, transposed (but for the Sixth, D major suite, which is jacked up an octave), played higher, more lightly, and quicker. Podger has a point when she says that the element of the dance, often brushed over in the past, is easier to bring out on the violin. But she is also right in observing that many HIP recordings on baroque cellos (and not just those) have already succeeded therein, since or alongside recordings from the likes of Pergamenschikow, Fournier, Kniazew, Tortelier, Starker, et al.

On her terms, she succeeds terrifically. But something is missing. I have a feeling it is the effort, actually. The bit of strenuousness, the bit of exertion that the cello demands of its performer is missing, and the result becomes—sneakily—glib. The violin flits about neatly, but the sense that someone is digging in and, if not fighting for their life, at least grappling to achieve a greater glory, is missing. That is something you get with the cello versions, even and especially with the finest and most assuredly performed ones (think Queyras, Wispelwey II). It’s almost a pity because so much beautiful musicianship as Rachel Podger brings to the table of Suites ends up amounting to surprisingly little. Very beautiful; very ineffectual.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: In this version: Unique, On the modern cello: Queyras (Harmonia Mundi); On the baroque cello: Wispelwey (Channel Classics), On the viola: Rysanov (BIS); On the guitar: Çeku (Eudora)

  • Rachel Podger (baroque violin)

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