Recording of November 1994: J.S. Bach: Suites for Solo Cello

J.S. BACH: Suites for Solo Cello
Nathaniel Rosen, cello
John Marks Records JMR 6/7 (2 CDs only). Doris Stevenson, prod.; Jerry Bruck, eng. DDD. TT: 2:16:43

Bach's Cello Suites do not have a long performance history; for long considered only exercise or teaching pieces, they were first championed by Pablo Casals in the 1930s. His recordings, made from 1936-39, still hold up as deeply felt interpretations, admittedly Romantic in character, and certainly uninfluenced (for good or ill) by any research into Baroque performance practice.

It is in this tradition that Nathaniel Rosen's new efforts fit. Free from the vices and the virtues of the authentic movement, they unfold beautifully and lyrically, impelled by a technique that is at once virtuosic and un-selfconscious. I would have no difficulty recommending this CD on purely musical grounds, even were it not so beautifully recorded; nevertheless, I strongly suggest that listeners interested in Bach also sample performances by Yo Yo Ma and/or Anner Bylsma. Also of interest is a performance by Julius Berger on a five-string instrument from the composer's day, in which the cellist, though perhaps not so skilled as any of the previously mentioned artists, still manages to get close to the dancing heart of the music.

It is here, perhaps, that I might fault some of Rosen's Suites, although the fault is never so great as to spoil the pleasure in listening: variations in rhythm by way of rubato can sometimes impede the flow of the music. It is to Rosen's credit that this seldom occurs, but I expect I would hear about it if I failed to mention it. I should also mention, for readers new to the Cello Suites, that no one—not even a selfless, dedicated reviewer—ought to try more than one or two of these works at a time. The cello is an enormously versatile and wide-ranging instrument, but it can cloy with too much continuous listening—especially in music which, however gorgeous, is still an extended set of dance variations.

This is my first experience with John Marks Records; based on the sound and performance qualities of these discs, I suspect it will not be my last. I have not heard a more natural cello sound on CD, and it is rather rare on LP as well. In particular, the microphone positioning here sounds well-nigh perfect—there is a marvelous balance between instrument and room. I don't know if any of this sonic quality can be attributed to the use of true 20-bit recording, but I'd love to hear the master tapes (along with the other greater-than-CD-standard efforts now beginning to appear). Incidentally, other Stereophile reviewers have recently commented on excessive midbass bloom on some JMR issues; I find nothing of the sort here, on my system. I admit that my Vandersteens roll off a bit at the low end (a room fault, not a failing of my 2Cs), but allowing for this, I find the tonal balance here to be more than very good.—Les Berkley

An Alternate View: Richard Lehnert asked me to comment on the sound of this Bach Suites set, as Nathaniel Rosen had been kind enough to play one of the Suites—in my living room—for the Stereophile staff this past summer. First, a note on the performances: I like Rosen's Bach Suites even more than Les does—of course, I'm an incurable Romantic, so he probably couldn't go overboard for my tastes. I love this interpretation. Of all the versions I've heard, it's the least like any other. Rosen's truly original approach sings out with a strong voice. In that sense, this set is a must-have for Bach cello enthusiasts.

I find the recorded sound more idiosyncratic. I've heard this cello and this player in my living room, and the recording sounds nothing like that. I've heard several other recorded versions of the Bach Suites in my living room, and this recorded cello doesn't resemble them. Similarly, the cello here is unlike any I've heard live.

I wouldn't say there's exactly a problem, but there is a characteristic. This recording presents Rosen's cello in a good-sized, quite reverberant, probably empty space. The cello sound is huge, but not bloated. The character of the cello's upper range is very faithful to the sound of Rosen's cello as I heard it in my living room, and the discs splendidly capture Rosen's ability to make his instrument sing. The lower range of the cello recorded here sounds bigger than life—not unpleasant, but definitely unusual.

Please don't use anything I say here as an excuse for not buying this set. Just don't be surprised by the extraordinarily large sound.—Larry Archibald

...And Another: I was there in Larry Archibald's living room for Rosen's recital, and agree that JMR has captured the spirit of Rosen's muse as fully as a machine seems capable of doing. But I have to disagree with LA re. the sound. Unlike him, I have heard cellos sound just this big and blooming—the right combination of cellist, cello, hall, and proportion of empty seats will result in just this sort of apparently larger-than-life sound. (Maybe it was all those senior cello recitals attended by only me and one or two next-of-kin.) As for the music, Nathaniel Rosen packs more space and time into these bare-bones pieces than anyone I've ever heard. My new favorite recording. John Atkinson likes it too, despite his reference recording being an "original-instruments" performance from Nikolaus Harnoncourt.—Richard Lehnert