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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020939758

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Reviewer:  Rob Cowan 

Most recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites find the soloist summoning their instrument in pursuit of a musical vision. With Emmanuelle Bertrand it was the discovery of an 18th-century cello by the Venetian luthier Carlo Tononi that acted as her guide. And I have to say that the results are pretty sensational, even in the light of such formidable recent sets by Thomas Demenga (his second recording), Yo-Yo Ma (his third) and, for me at least, Alban Gerhardt.

The first thing to strike me is the instrument’s depth of tone, certainly as recorded, most particularly in the Fifth Suite in C minor with its scordatura (darkened retuning). Here the sheer weight of Bertrand’s chords, their ochre colouring, has the impact of Brahmsian chamber music: what’s most miraculous is that when we come to the Sarabande, with its single weeping line, the contrast between an imagined ensemble of strings and a desolate, wintry single voice is overwhelming. Not that hers is the only way to play this music. Gerhardt’s poignant way with the Sarabande’s closing minute or so is as affecting as any performance I’ve heard on disc. In fact, throughout his set the combination of crisp pointing, subtle vibrato, judicious timing and a very special expressive slant summons me back time and again. Ma and Demenga have character to spare (Ma’s playing is full of telling incident) but with Bertrand, tiny embellishments and a kaleidoscopic range of colours make listening a particular pleasure, so much so in fact that I took in the whole set at a single sitting. You get the impression that she’s recalling the music from memory rather than reading it off the page (which is what she is probably doing). The Allemande from the First Suite has the feel of a stream of consciousness about it, its ebb and flow always effortless and with a manner of elasticity that defies accurate definition simply because it’s so natural, so lightly deployed. Similarly, the various Gigues really do dance.

I think what most appeals to me is the degree of varied shading that Bertrand achieves by illuminating chords from within. She has a rich palette at her disposal and wastes no opportunity to use it. So a definite thumbs-up; and while it would be foolhardy to play leapfrog over the best recent rivals with yet another fine recording of the Suites, this one will stay put in my collection. As I write this, among digital options it’s the one I’m most likely to return to next.

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