In the accompanying liner notes, Alban Gerhardt refers to his apprehension in tackling what he sees, like many other cellists, as the summit of the repertoire for his instrument. He is too consummate a musician to turn in an indifferent performance, however, even though in this (his first recording of Bach’s Cello Suites) it is as though he has internalised that caution as a more or less subconscious strategy in these interpretations which avoid extrovert or exaggerated renditions.
Close listening reveals the detailed attention Gerhardt pays to the music’s rhythmic contours and its harmonic progressions. The tone he draws from his cello is lean, perhaps even a touch dry but certainly incisive, and for the most part dynamics remain within a moderate range. Multiple-stopping is lightly sprung, and stands diametrically opposed to the vastly more effortful execution by Mstislav Rostropovich, on account of which I tend to dissent from the widespread acclaim accorded to his recording. The second ‘Bourrée’ of No.4 is a good instance where the double-stopped notes which Bach adds underneath the principal melody are not awkwardly imposed by Gerhardt but exquisitely placed in order to render the meter of that section with idiomatic alertness, whilst the more sustained ‘Sarabande’ of No.6 remains wonderfully supple.
Gerhardt’s readings take account of historically-informed-practice, but they are not confined by the straightjacket of any received tradition; rather they irradiate a quiet freedom that is devoid of rhetoric. Tempos tend to be relatively brisk, perhaps particularly noticeable in the ‘Allemandes’ – which many cellists take fairly broadly, threatening any sense of momentum, or at least dispelling tension after a fuller assault on the ‘Preludes’, but Gerhardt reverses that procedure, downplaying the relative impact of the latter as an upbeat to the dances. ‘Sarabandes’ also flow eloquently, and ‘Courantes’ bustle along, but never inconsequentially as he achieves a sense of innate logic and order. That is evident in the fastidious placing of the phrases of No.5’s ‘Sarabande’, giving it form, where too many renditions make it meander aimlessly and sluggishly. Similarly the poised rhythms of the filigree lines of No.6’s ‘Allemande’ lend it enticing shape.
He uses rubato, but not at all distractingly, and subtly emphasises important anchoring notes that highlight the chords implied by this largely monophonic music. A good example is the ‘Courante’ of No.1 as it playfully courses along, through which Gerhardt quietly underlines the characteristic falling, three-quaver motif which marks the beginning and end of phrases.
As a complete traversal of the set, Gerhardt’s does not constitute a study in six different colours, shades or moods, trying to distil the character of each Suite in a clearly contrasted series. Unlike some complete recordings, it makes less sense to listen to all six in one go as a multifaceted agglomeration, since his aim is not to differentiate them. Instead they are best heard singly, as abstract music, or studies in pure technique, much like the works composed by Bach in the final decade of his life.
These are not heart-on-sleeve interpretations but they grow on the listener in progressing through the series and on repeated study. By diligently attending to what are the fundamental aspects of any musical performance – rhythm, tempo, and timbre – Gerhardt exacts a more thoughtful and compelling realisation of this music than many others who seek to make bolder or eccentric statements with it, and for that reason stands out in a competitive field.