There seems to be an unspoken rule that the great solo string works of Bach should not be tackled by young performers. Although this has been recently blown out of the water by violinists such as Julia Fischer, some of the press coverage of Steven Isserlis' recording of the cello suites suggested that this view still held for the cello works. Indeed, the cellist's own assertion that he didn't and probably never would feel ready to record them rather backed this up.
Isserlis had 'finally' recorded the works in his late forties last year, released on Hyperion. I've searched in vain to find details of Jean-Guihen Queyras' age, but would guess he's some ten years younger than the British cellist. To my ears, though, Queyras' recording stands up extremely well against Isserlis' outstanding, multi-award winning reading. And I have to say that this new release from Harmonia Mundi suffers nothing from being played by a younger man. It's impossible to tell whether it is anything to do with age, but there's an open-minded expressiveness that sounds not as though it results from an attempt at extra-musical interpretation or understanding but, quite simply, a heartfelt reaction to the music itself.
Recorded in March 2007 at the church of St. Cyriak in Sulzburg, the acoustic is slightly reverberant but not distractlingly so. In fact it serves to emphasise the glorious sound Queyras gets out of his cello, a rich and sweet sounding instrument by Gioffredo Cappa from 1696 (it comes into its own, particularly, in the more expansive sixth suite). The top is expressive and honeyed, the lower range rich and fruity. Comparing these performances with those of Isserlis, it strikes the listener as a far more physical and sensual experience, rather than a more overtly intellectual one; although Hyperion's sound for Isserlis is beyond reproach, he is given a drier acoustic.
Queyras sets his stall out straight away with an unfussy but finely turned account of the First Suite's Prelude. He plays with an easy naturalness and employs a subtle rubato that keeps the music breathing but never causes it to lose momentum. Technically, the playing is spot-on: intonation is secure and he maintains a beautiful tone throughout the set, whether it's a slow sarabande or a virtuosic gigue. In some of the allemandes, Queyras takes a rather slow basic tempo, as is the case in the first four suites, where each of the movements lasts around a minute longer than in Isserlis's version. This inevitably takes them away from their origins in dance and could be seen as 'inauthentic' but in many of the other movements there is a delectable bounce and liveliness – listen to the Courante of the Sixth Suite, for example, or the Gigue from the fourth.
It says something about the recording that I constantly had to dicipline myself not simply to get seduced by the the sheer beauty of the cello playing. That's not to say, though, that there isn't ample evidence of a keen musical intelligence at play, just that it seems - in my view, correctly - to have been subordinated to musical requirements. One has to admit that in the astonishing Sarabande from the Fifth Suite Queyras doesn't quite achieve the same hushed intensity as Isserlis – this movement is central to the latter's association of the whole of that suite with the Passion – but it's still profoundly moving. Queyras's reading of that suite's prelude is fuller though; on the whole, I especially enjoyed his improvisatory way with the preludes, the rhetorical flourishes in the Third Suite's striking me as particularly successful.
It's interesting to compare Isserlis' own booklet note, where he explains not only the textual choices for his recording but also elaborates his own 'personal feeling (definitely not a theory!)' with the brief interview with Queyras that accompanies his recording. The younger player focuses on Bach's sheer compositional virtuosity and displays little inclination to express anything along the lines of a 'personal feeling'. He's most definitly not paralysed by reverence for the works or the famously knotty problems surrounding their 'authentic' performance but just gets on with playing them; for him these are living, breathing musical works, rather than mystically divine bequests to humanity.
The set also includes a DVD with a brief film from the recording sessions and the complete Third Suite. Queyras is greeted warmly by the recording's producer, Cécile Lenoir, and they chat with one another and to the camera with a refreshing and revealing openness. It's worth pointing out that Queyras, who has considerable 'period instrument' experience, made this recording with a modern bow and strings.
By Hugo Shirley