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CD Review: Bach's Cello Suites

By John Sidgwick

PARIS, 19 September 2002 - The little French town of Auvers-sur-Oise not far from Paris is known worldwide as the place where Vincent van Gogh spent the last weeks of his life, where he painted some of his greatest masterpieces and where he eventually put an end to his life.

Until some twenty-five years ago, it remained the sleepy little place it had always been and a Sunday pilgrimage there could be very rewarding. The best was to arrive mid-morning by car or local train, book your table for lunch at the Auberge Van Gogh, stroll around the little market and then make your way on foot to the cemetery where Vincent and his faithful brother, Theo, lie side by side. On the return walk, you could pause for a moment in front of the church and stand on the very spot at a bend in the sloping path where the painter must have planted his easel to make the brooding, magnificent picture of the edifice - the touch of a red-tiled roof on the right-hand side of the painting provides the clue. You could then repair to the restaurant and enjoy an excellent and modestly-priced Sunday lunch; you might even sweetheart la patronne into letting you see the room in which Van Gogh died.

Almost inevitably, Auvers has been subjected to an assault by the tourist industry; yet somehow, in spite of hugely-increased numbers of visitors, the spirit of the place has been left intact. Moreover, since 1981, it has been the home for an excellent and enterprising festival of music and the arts during May and June each year. I was reminded of this when a CD produced under the auspices of the festival came my way, a complete recording of the Bach cello suites performed by the French cellist, Henri Demarquette.

This is a thoroughly worth while addition to the many recordings already available. Demarquette spans a tight arch over the pieces which make up each suite so that they are welded into a coherent whole. Throughout, his speeds are brisk but never to the point of rushing and the quality of his articulation is never less than admirable. This is particularly true in the hideously difficult 6th suite, which was originally written for a five-stringed instrument. In addition, Demarquette's intonation in the double-stopped passages in the high positions demanded by the score is a model of accuracy.

It occurred to me during several hearings of the two-disk set that in each suite, it is the sarabande that lies at the heart of the ensemble of dances. Only too often in performances of the sarabandes, players tend to go in for a juicy, romantic sound and to stretch out the tempo. And to be quite honest, who can blame them?! It is the one moment when they can really give full vent to the cello's glorious voice (another such moment being, of course, the prelude to the famous 5th suite). Demarquette, however wisely eschews such a path. There is no shortage of spirituality or of emotion in his performance of the sarabandes, but everything comes from a higher level. And this applies right through the succession of the suites. The courantes, gigues and bourrées are alive with a sort of sophisticated country joy and the allemandes give off a delicious whiff of nostalgia.

Not many years ago, the great tradition of French cello playing was struck a mortal blow by the deaths in quick succession of André Navarra, Paul Tortellier and Maurice Gendron. It is now clear that the future of cello playing in the country is in secure hands when it is entrusted to the likes of Demarquette, who is already an established international artist. At the age of thirty-two, he is in full possession of a mighty tone and technique and I look forward to hearing him in the great concertos.

Bach: Cello Suites / Henri Demarquette

J. S. Bach: Cello Suites, BWV 1007 - 1012
Henri Demarquette, cello
FAE009 - 2 CD
20 €

Related: Festival d'Auvers-sur-Oises

Missing Masterpieces: "Van Gogh's Van Goghs"

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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