Move Records MD 3422
Many cellists play the Bach unaccompanied suites and sometimes gain great acclaim from the process. They all owe a singular debt to Pablo Casals who unveiled the scores after centuries of neglect. Indeed, sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the instrument’s repertoire would be partly denuded if the six suites were removed from public view. Alongside a wealth of superb concertos, what remains for cello recital programs? Beethoven’s five sonatas and two each from Mendelssohn and Brahms, for sure. Then there are the single units by Debussy and, less popular, Grieg and Chopin. After that, the chief source of nourishment is the 20th century with its momentary successes and more frequent conundrums and wastes of time. For such a fundamentally important musical voice, the cello has accrued a wealth of pap and arrangements but it’s a rare player who takes the exclusively contemporary (anything after 1900) path.
Melbourne musician Zoe Knighton is best-known for her endeavours in the chamber music field, especially as a founding constant in the Flinders Quartet and for organizing festival days of chamber music at the University of Melbourne that featured most of this city’s outstanding ensembles. For Move Records, she has made several recordings, mainly with Amir Farid, that include estimable readings of Beethoven and Mendelssohn’s complete oeuvres for cello and piano. Now she has moved to the fundamental, putting her hat into the ring with Casals, Tortelier, Fournier, Rostropovich and Isserlis. Why not? She has an obvious sympathy with these scores and achieves the valuable goal of letting sunlight into musical rooms that all too often tend to be stacked with well-lacquered mahogany.
For space allocation reasons, I suppose, this album’s two CDs split the suites into non-sequential groups of three. Disc 1 has Suite 1 in G Major, Suite 4 in E flat Major, and Suite 5 in C minor; the second disc holds the D minor Suite 2, Suite 3 in C Major and the last in D Major. As the informed are aware, the works’ organization follows a regular pattern: each has a prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, and concluding gigue. In penultimate position come two minuets (Suites 1 and 2), or two bourees (Suites 3 and 4) or 2 gavottes (Suites 5 and 6). For all that symmetry and simplicity of format, Bach invests each movement with individual personality and Knighton has a gift for reaching into these pages and revealing their character.
As far as familiar Bach cello music goes, you won’t find much that beats the prelude to the Suite No. 1 which sounds out in recital spaces with tedious regularity. Knighton sets up the pattern for her overall reading through these familiar pages which, for some inexplicable reason, brought to mind a totally dissimilar musician: Ton Koopman, whose versions of canonic Bach organ works once struck me as hectically iconoclastic. Not that this cellist walks an unexpectedly original path, but her treatment of the variables that are intrinsic to these editorially bare pages is quite original so that not much is predictable, least of all in her choice of resting-points and the length of time she stays on them. She avoids the overkill temptation in this prelude’s climax but takes the opportunity to address powerfully the movement’s last four bars to fine effect.
Like many among her predecessors, Knighton saves her ornamentation for the repeats, as seen first in this suite’s allemande, more effectively in the consequent courante which reveals another aspect of the musician’s vision in that it remains a dance, one with pronounced rhythmic underlay. The imbalance between the piece’s two segments is somehow smoothed out by a clear intent to maintain this vital pulse rather than twisting the courante‘s format into fantasia-like excess. You come to a restrained landscape with the sarabande; no imposed heft but an outline that borders on the affectionately lingering.
Knighton omits the triple stops that occur in my edition at bars 18 and 20 of Minuet 1‘s second part and allows herself a relaxation in metre for the G minor Minuet II. The gigue brings the suite home in sensible style, distinguished by a delicate emphasis on each bar’s first beat.
Opening Suite 4, the interpretation of the prelude offers a forceful emphasis on the low note at each bar’s start, but the attack quietens to a soft low C sharp at the movement’s shift in character for a recitative passage. This is one of the more unpredictable parts in the entire set of suites but the cellist shows intelligent musicianship in negotiating the relentless wide-ranging arpeggio element in the movement’s central segments. Following this temperamental ride, the allemande attests to the natural affable charm of Knighton’s approach, illustrated best by the gentle bounce colouring the 7th leaps during bars 9 to 11, these pages coming to a fetching, insouciant finish.
For the following courante, I found the most attractive passage to be the final 23 bars. Bach’s superficially carefree but clever vaulting metrical patterns, especially the use of triplets in the third-last bar, present a kind of jeu d’esprit that Knighton negotiates deftly without drawing attention to its brisk craft. The sarabande is given all of a piece, without dynamic jumps in dynamic, its final diminuendo in the concluding two bars accomplished with tact. The bouree brace raised some production question marks at a few of the top E flats and Fs. You’d be satisfied with the gigue‘s first half but Knighton gives a very rousing vitality to the lengthy, bounding second part – and its repeat – with no signs of fatigue.
The scordatura Suite 5 begins with a mighty prelude, more a French overture in form and an invitation to indulge in grandiose gestures. Here it receives its fair amount of dramatic tension but the 3/8 long second section leaves you in no doubt that, yet again, everything here tends towards dance. An impressive detail emerged in the player’s skill at sustaining both upper and lower pedal notes in a busy fabric. An exercise in musing rather than an allemande, the next movement finds Knighton treating the second half’s rhythmic abrupt grupetti with calm fluidity. She also takes relish in articulating the sudden change in emphasis of the courante‘s two cadential bars. For the famous sarabande, all artifice is stripped away and the slow line of single notes comes across as a kind of sophisticated keening.
The pair of gavottes offer a notable contrast: the first is gritty, its double, triple and quadruple stops ground out with confidence; the second could be taken for a gigue, albeit a very rapid, sotto voce one. The finale itself brings this exceptional work to the finest of lopsided endings, especially when real irregularity sets in after the second half’s two-bar trill where Bach kicks against the predictable and Knighton is happy to leave his adventure to speak clearly for itself.
Opening Disc 2, the D minor Suite No. 2 offers the experience of an excellently handled increase in ardour to the prelude’s rhetorical climax beginning at bar 40, the energy sustained in the composer’s simple but moving pattern work to the fermata at bar 48. Knighton boldly splays the allemande‘s opening chord but thereafter maintains a mobile pace. More rousing is the courante, strikingly vivid in its bursts of action and hiatus points. You start to fear that the speed chosen here is too rapid, particularly after a few glancing, almost-not-there notes in the first part. But the executant’s results justify this hurtling attack and firm-hand treatment.
Echoes of the D minor Violin Partita inevitably rise up during the sarabande, largely because of a similar severe clarity of utterance. Without dismissing Knighton’s obvious care, I have to admit to being distracted by Bach’s marvellous craft in giving emphasis to the second beat of each bar, even in those stretches of superficially undifferentiated quavers. Later, you hear another clear-speaking instance of the player’s affection for this music in the wide leaps of Minuet II – gently administered so that the bow glances off the strings without unnecessary force. By contrast, she swaggers through the gigue, gaining plenty of approbation for the controlled aggression of those double-stopped pedal passages that wind up each half.
Suite 3 opens with panache, surging through its opening strophes to a slow-burn dynamic build-up at the broken arpeggio writing that starts at bar 36 and builds to a powerful construct on the dominant G from bars 45 to 61; Knighton enters spiritedly into the thrilling flamboyance of this prelude’s last ten bars. Both allemande and courante avoid machine-like regularity, thanks to a plethora of well-pointed loitering.
Not facing any emotional depths, Knighton produces a generous, sensitively-shaped sarabande before moving into popular encore fare with the pair of C Major/minor bourees. If she finds little original to be articulated here, she still gives both pieces a clean texture and handles their fluent angularity with aplomb. Interesting in itself, the gigue never ceases to delight for its invention, notably when the second half strikes out on its own before toeing the line. Here it gains from a clever type of inner bounce that still delivers the piece as a unit, despite the interpolation of gabbling semiquaver passages and some transitions into musette territory.
Finally, Knighton reaches the taxing Suite VI, originally asking for a 5-string instrument. Suddenly, the timbre changes upwards with a wealth of writing in the tenor clef, the first time in the collection. Bach celebrates the work’s singularity with another solid prelude, the second-longest in the set. Not that this version is rushed, but I would have preferred it at a slower pace; yes, the opening 77 bars have nothing but quavers to propel the action but a lot is going on that stands up to measured consideration.
With its 20 mammoth-length bars, the allemande is a welter of ornamentation, straining at its own bonds as it reveals itself as a cross between a fantasia and a meditation. This is powerful and brooding music, despite its flashes of action and Knighton gives it ample space – the longest track on both discs – and an excellent dynamic diminution at about the half-way point. Normal running resumes with the courante, sprightly and definite in pulse; the performer is enjoying the experience here, carrying on a kind of internalised dance with the most quiet and subtle of emphases brought into play.
She makes a noble processional out of the sarabande, for once in keeping with the dance name, quietly progressing despite the composer’s clutches of chords and those double-stopped passages that dominate the second half. More encore material comes with the gavottes although, like pretty much every other cellist, Knighton struggles with the requirement of negotiating massive and frequent chords while giving prominence to a melody line. Which is nothing to the gigue with its impossibly demanding first half loaded with demanding problems of fingering and bowing, giving way to a relieving second part that leaves you with the sense of having experienced a moderately pleasant exercise after an ocean of trials.
Like many of us, I’ve found Knighton’s chamber music a reliable source of enjoyment. She radiates confidence in her work and participates with personality and no little finesse. These discs are a rewarding demonstration of her talents as a solitary voice, one well worth hearing for the pleasure given in so many of the 18 tracks through this player’s familiar warmth and honesty of musical character.