The title of this release, “Escape”, points to a desire to fit the summa of the cello repertoire, J. S. Bach’s six unaccompanied Suites, within an overall conception of mood or ambient music, rather than to create a rigorously probing interpretation, and that is what happens. These are generally broad and richly-toned performances which show that Sophie Webber has taken considerable trouble in attaining a technically polished account of each work. She adopts what comes across as an awed, reverential approach that makes them sound like so many exercises in meditative withdrawal. But the result is that there is perhaps only a little more variety among the dances within a particular Suite, than an overall different and idiomatic character given to each one of the six, although the gravely serious way with the first two movements of the C-minor stands out (and no doubt Bach’s requested scordatura assists with that).
Webber sustains an impressively seamless line across much of the music, even where the melodies leap around registers to create the semblance of different parts moving in polyphonic unity. But her generally leisurely way with the ‘Preludes’ in particular lead to an interpretation that smooths out too much the tensions in the music that lend it structural coherence and necessary contrast, and which would, therefore, set a different tone for each Suite. The famous Prelude of the G-major Suite is a little too languid despite the attractive lilt given to the anchoring notes at the beginning of each half bar of broken chords, and the ensuing ‘Allemande’ is too brisk by comparison. The smoothing out of tension within the phrases of the ‘Preludes’ rather cancels out the effect of release which Bach so carefully builds into the music after working up to the climax in every instance. And in that of No.2 there is little difference in articulation between those parts of phrases which are slurred and those which are not.
Phrasing and articulation cannot be faulted in the dance movements, and their resonant delivery falls on the ears agreeably and with assurance; Webber’s achievement in that regard is more accomplished than that of some wider-known cellists, past and present. But greater alacrity would create more contrast with those that they sit alongside, for example, in the final ‘Gigues’ which need, variously, more ballast or drive; a more urgent ‘Courante’ before the ‘Sarabande’ of No.2; or even more contrast within the sections of No.4’s ‘Courante’. It is interesting that, sometimes, where there are pairs of the same dances, the second of each is taken at a different tempo from the first (even if not explicitly called for) offering variety within those structures where the first dance is reprised to create a ternary form.
The reflective, even at times, dreamy, way with the music suits well the church acoustic in which these works are recorded, and each Suite carves out a not inappropriate space for mental and spiritual contemplation, which exponents have long recognised as valuable qualities in this pure music, and this release will appeal for the ability to dip into it for that, perhaps one Suite at a time. But elements of cerebral and physical engagement with the ingenuity of Bach’s scores, which distil the tempos and meters of classic dance forms in concentrated and abstract form, proves more elusive.