Bach: The Cello Suites

Bach: The Cello Suites
Michael Goldschlager
ABC Classics 476 4625

Reviewed by Barry Walmsley

To record yet another CD of these great and enduring landmarks in the cello repertoire requires great courage but more importantly, something distinctive to say. Afterall, all the great cellists of the world have put their imprint on these suites: names such as Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, Janos Starker, Jacqueline du Pre, and Yo Yo Ma.

But it was born from a most unusual set of circumstances. The American-born, Perth-based cellist, Michael Goldschlager played these works eight times a week over more than two years alongside David Bowie and Mark Hamill in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man.

From the time Bach wrote the cello suites (somewhere between 1720 and 1723 when he was Kapellmeister at the court of Analt-Kothen) to today, Goldschalger shows in this recording that the work resonates with a living spirit that can still speak to today’s listener. Regarded as the Everest for cellists today, the suites are deceptive for their apparent simplicity. Far from that, they demand the greatest technical and artistic insight.

The range of dynamics utilised here are the product of the cellist using an instrument which was made 30 years after the suites were composed. Goldschalger confirms his approach by also noting that there is no original manuscript available in Bach’s hand, so modern scholars and performers must come to terms with the composer’s intentions, let alone the formidable range available by playing a ‘modern’ instrument, such as the one used on this recording (a Francois Fourrier Nicolas, 1780).

Vibrato, tuning, types of bows used and even bowing indications are some of the issues with which the modern performer must grapple. “I am of the opinion that Bach would have relished the opportunity to hear his music on new and evolving instruments,” said Goldschlager.

But what we have here is an intelligent and stylistic realisation of these diverse movements, complete with added ornamentation and improvised material (as was the custom of the day). Many versions of the same works should be found amongst all good cellist’s audio library. This is one such set that should be included. And for that matter, all good musicians (not just cellists) should know these definitive works by Bach as they represent some of the most personal and wonderfully insightful pieces of this period. Not only does Goldschlager convey some of the individual dance characteristics in each movement of the suite (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet, Gavotte, Bourree, Gigue), but more spectacularly, he gives them the essential lyricism which makes them endure to this day.

The Good, The Bad and the Awkward

The Good, the Bad and the Awkward
Sally Whitwell (pianist)
ABC Classics 476 4898
Reviewed by Barry Walmsley

At first, I picked this CD up and wondered what it was all about… Great music played by a pianist who is one of the fastest evolving personalities in the Australian classical music scene today – a performer who cannot be described as one dimensional at all. So, instantly there was intrigue.

Recordings which grab you with titles such as this one are sure to be successful. But Whitwell’s intelligence in devising an anthology of music which, on the surface may not bear any relationship to each other, shows incredible courage and passionate about what she loves, or what inspires her.

This is a disc which is a unique tribute to film characters to whom she finds an attraction, most importantly the most-loved of all French films, Amelie (with its five beautiful and simply stated pieces by Yann Tiersen).

“I started thinking about why I feel so attached to the film and particularly to her (Amelie), how I identify with her and feel her joys and sorrows so intensely. It’s all about being a bit socially awkward, about how awkward people eventually can find their place in the world, can ultimately triumph. Here was an experience I wanted to share,” said Whitwell.

So it is with this dedication and passion that performer meets music.

Rota’s Gelsomina (from La Strada) uses melodica and toy piano and conjures an image instantly, as does Badalamenti’s L’Execution (from The City of Lost Children). Later, Badalamenti’s Falling (from Twin Peaks) is a slow moving piece which will appeal to the melancholic at heart.

Nyman’s Candlefire (from The Diary of Anne Frank) is so poignant with its simplicity of melodic theme and harmonic gesture, that it is a real tear-jerker. Of course, a work from The Piano cannot be ignored from such a disc, and here Big My Secret conveys the originality of this great film composer.

Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 (as used in The Painted Veil) is intriguing as is all of Satie’s piano music. The French-inspired Delicatessen features music by D’Alessio using piano, toy piano and melodica. The Hours, a film featuring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and based on the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs Dalloway, uses Philip Glass pieces – and this piano music doesn’t disappoint (as it seemingly contains more melodic material than expected!). Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared is a new discovery with his C’est le vent, Betty (from Betty Blue), and its repeated knocking against a quirky but joyous fluency. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag (as used in the Australian animated film Mary and Max) changes in mood from the slow opening to a more fluid section, and returns to a reflective moment, which masks the rag influence momentarily.

The Portrait of a Lady (based on Henry James’s novel of the same name) uses the music of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, D899, which Whitwell gives the necessary elegance and brooding drama. Other uses of classical music may cause surprise, such as the adaptation of Delibes’s Flower Duet in the vampire movie The Hunger, Debussy’s Clair de lune (Ocean’s Eleven), Haydn’s Adagio e cantabile from Piano Sonata in E flat (from Interview with the Vampire), and JS Bach’s Prelude No 1 (Bk 1) as used in Bagdad Café (the Preludes are used more in this film, as one of the characters plays them throughout).

Distinctive for his authentic voice in film composition is Ennio Morricone, and here The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (from the film of the same name) employs Whitwell performing harpsichord, melodica, recorder and recording her own voice, in what is a great realisation of a film classic.

This was such an interesting collection of music showing the wealth of material set for film. Some of the selections and their use in film are so intriguing that I have to now go out and deliberately watch or re-watch some films to confirm how this music has actually been used to support the visual image and dramatic content.

Whitwell’s choices show an obvious connection with French music, minimalist orientations, vampire films and strong female story lines.

This music would be richly rewarding for any student. Whitwell has collected some of the best film repertoire for piano. As well, this disc would be a valuable addition to a school teacher’s collection for the teaching of Music and the Media.