Richard Tunnicliffe - J.S. Bach: Cello Suites -

Performance:  Sonics (S/MC): /

Richard Tunnicliffe may not be a household name as a cellist, but he has the required technique, individuality, practical experience and spirit required to tackle Bach's celebrated Suites for Solo Cello. This is his first solo album. He is principal cello with The Avison Ensemble, whose performances and recordings of English string music of the 18th century are highly prized, and also a gamba player in the renowned viol consort Fretwork, known worldwide for their innovative programmes, which frequently include new works.

Apart from this, he is also principal cello with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with whom he has been associated since its foundation, and has worked as cellist/gambist with the Boston Symphony, Frankfurt Radio S.O., City of Birmingham S.O., English National Opera, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the London Mozart Players, and under conductors such as Haitink, Rattle, Iván Fischer, Mackerras and Elder. As an international soloist, his recitals of the Bach Cello Suites have been widely acclaimed, and like other cellists he has devoted much-study time to these enigmatic works.

The Cello Suites remain enigmatic because Bach's autographs are lost, There are only four early copies, each of them with different slurs, bowings and phrasing marks, but complicated with obvious mistakes in copying the notes themselves. Probably the most authoritative is the copy by Anna Magdelena, Bach's second wife. Fortunately, comparing the real autograph of the likely near-contemporaneous Sonatas for Solo Violin with AM's own copy of the violin sonatas, researchers have shown that she added a number of markings of her own to her copy of the Cello Suites. In his excellent booklet notes, Tunnicliffe refers to Anna Magdelena's effort as "sloppy", but hers is the basic version from which he works, as do a number of other cellists.

The greatest part of Tunnicliffe's career has been working with period performance practices, but he wisely does not claim any spurious "authenticity" for the present recording. Apart from the paucity of performance directions in the scores, there is no irrefutable evidence of what kind of instrument Bach wrote the suites for. Sigiswald Kuijken's research has provided possibly convincing evidence that the cello most likely found at the court of Cöthen at the probable time of the Cello Suites's composition around 1720 was the 'violoncello da spalla' (from the Italian for "shoulder"), which was held horizontally at the chest, against or on the right shoulder. It could easily be played by a violinist.

A smaller version of this da spalla (or another kind of cello), with 5 strings, was specified by Bach for Suite no. 6 as a 'violoncello piccolo' (small cello). Richard Tunnicliffe is one of few cellists who actually uses a 5-string cello (a cello piccolo by Pierre Malahar, Bordeaux 1726) for the Sixth Suite. Later in the C18th, a cello appeared in Italy which was "da gamba", i.e. held between the knees, and this only slowly made its way into the small German courts where Bach worked. Subsequently the end-pin or spike was added by Servais at the middle of the C19th (he was too fat to hold the cello between his knees!), and other changes shortened the neck, so advances in stringing were also needed to give the modern cello a solo presence when playing concertos with a large orchestra.

For Bach's Suites 1-5, Tunnicliffe uses a cello attributed to Leonhard Maussiell, Nuremberg c.1720. This has outstanding beauty of tone and a particularly sonorous lower region which is very close to the glorious bass of the long-necked Servais cello residing in the Smithsonian Collection. No information is supplied by Linn about the cello's degree of C18th modification, nor the type of strings used (gut, wire or wire-wound). Both Tunnicliffe's instruments are tuned to A = 415Hz, a common Baroque pitch, lower than today's standard. There is little or no evident vibrato, but the resonance of the cello itself is sufficiently rich and sustained to give a very affecting sound.

Linn recorded several sessions of the Suites in St George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK during2010-2011. Session continuity is excellent, and the church acoustic lends a warmly resonant bloom to the cellos, particularly delicious when listened to using 5.1 multichannel mode. The microphones are close enough to capture a fair amount of nasal breathing, but rather than this being distracting, I found it added to the illusion of Tunnicliffe playing in one's enlarged music-room. The overall cello sound is rich in overtones and particularly gorgeous in the lower regions; some of the best recorded solo cello sound I have ever heard - partly due to the inherent qualities of the instrument itself.

Tunnicliff's performances are simply magnificent. I was captivated from the very first bars of Suite 1's flowing Prelude, which exuded a happy-feeling radiant warmth typical of all his playing. As one so experienced in Baroque music, his technique involves a clear but not intrusive rhythmic pulse (some famous cellists tend to become so involved in interpreting the melodic lines of these dances that they loose the rhythms completely). The other immediately remarkable characteristic is that his cello sings in a truly vocal way. Bach's ineffable melodic lines really do sing out in Tunnicliffe's hands, and they are phrased exquisitely. Such eloquent melodic lines are not always obvious from the scores, often being tightly bound up with ornamentation such as arpeggios and scale runs. Tunnicliffe's lucid and naturally-contoured parsing of the notation frees the melodic lines, and in so doing makes for much easier listening, compared with "period" versions by Bylsma, Kuijken and ter Linden, not to mention some other well-known proponents of the Suites.

Another attractive characteristic of Tunnicliffe's reading of the Suites is his ability to decode and present a strong character for each one, without any over-interpretation or quirky indulgence. As he points out in his notes, each suite takes its character from its Prelude. Many of the dance movements also reveal his innate sense of humour, sometimes rustic or cheeky, sometimes tongue-in-cheek with a pointedly "genteel" style. All of these nuances contribute to the vivid colouration of his readings.

The stately Sarabandes unwind movingly as sensuous, lofty, pensive, tragic or noble discourses, supported by more chords than found elsewhere in the dances. Tunnicliffe tells us in his notes that the Sarabande of the Fifth Suite has a winding single melodic line of such intensity that it recalls for him Bach's "et incarnatus est" from the B minor Mass. His playing of it is tear-laden. In Suites 4-6 the dance movements become progressively more abstracted, and this often calls for virtuosity: here it is never forced and always is at the service of the dance's original spirit.

Suite 5 has a scordatura, i.e. the top string is down-tuned from A to G. This notably changes the resonance of the cello, which develops a gruff bass and a more incisive upper range. This Suite has the most perfect French set of dances, which respond with good humour to the changed tonal colours. The 5-string cello also offers a whole new range of timbres for Tunnicliffe to work with; its lightness and silvery tone propels fast running textures into shimmering streams, and he even manages a very good imitation of a droning French hurdy-gurdy in the famous jaunty Gavotte. All this energetic playing appears to be effortless, never dragging or labouring.

Every performance of the Six Suites for Solo Cello is a unique communion of player with instrument.. There is no "best" performance. Every performer strives to give a "better" one next, in their own judgement. Pierre Fournier, for example, recorded them four times, in 1959, 1960, 1972 and 1977. Compare these, and you will find quite remarkable differences. Taking just the Prelude from Suite No. 1 in C, it is slow and solemn in 1959, but much faster and lighter in 1977. So choosing from a rich list of recorded performances is difficult for collectors, especially novices. I suggest that Tunnicliffe's (first!) recording would be a good choice for anyone wanting to to start their communion with Bach's Cello Suites. And if, like me, you already have 15 or more versions that you could not do without, you will need Tunnicliffe's happy, lucid and seemingly inevitable version too.

22 March 2012