In this election season we constantly hear complaints that there are no clear differences between the candidates. Well, if you’re looking for clear contrasts, you’ll find none more striking than between cellist Tomasz Strahl on this recording and Miklós Perényi in his 1991 readings of these same works for Harmonia Mundi. For my money, Perényi’s got the advantage, from his instrument–warm and silken-toned to Strahl’s brighter, more pungent quality–to his interpretive style–lyrical, legato, cantabile, in contrast to Strahl’s sharp-edged, more assertive articulations. The sound in each case is absolutely complementary to the “voice” of the instrument in question and the playing style of the soloist–warm and sensuous for the Perényi; colder and edgier for the Strahl. And both of them work as valid musical approaches and as examples of how different an impression of the same music can be created owing to variations in recording ambience as well as to tempo, articulation, and even the individual personality–and thus, responsiveness and sonic character–of a given instrument.
Many listeners will favor Strahl’s (and his totally supportive orchestral partners’) racy confidence in the allegros to Perényi’s equally dazzling but less respiratorally challenged versions. Both are quite effective in their very personal, elegantly realized slow movements. Bach’s music perfectly lends itself to these different approaches, with brilliant, virtuosic fast sections and lovely, lingering slow movements, all of it abundantly stocked with solo lines that allow the performer to stretch a little here, accelerate a bit there, with room for a few cadenzas (Strahl employs one of his own, one by Perényi, and another by Lynn Harrell). I do have one rather bizarre observation regarding tempos that I can’t resist mentioning: When I compared the track times printed on the outside packaging of the two discs, I found the timings for each movement of each concerto to be identical–down to the exact second! In fact, Accord’s printed times have nothing to do with actuality. Strahl’s readings generally are faster than Perényi’s–a major factor in his performances’ unique impact. Who knows how these things happen (the Twilight Zone, perhaps?).
Some listeners will find the Harmonia Mundi sound too full-bodied, but the cello is placed in more natural relief vis-à-vis the orchestra than Accord’s “inside the cello” intimacy. Whichever you choose (perhaps both?), this is great music that doesn’t get enough respect. These two excellent cellists certainly are doing what they can to change that.