Richard Tunnicliffe's exemplary traversal of JS Bach's cello suites challenges another noteworthy cycle from Jean-Guihen Queyras, recorded by Harmonia Mundi in 2007. It is measured and exploratory rather than improvisatory and capricious, and it might not be over-cooking Schumannesque allusion to cite Tunnicliffe as Eusebius to Queyras's Florestan, so dissimilar are their respective approaches. Yet both afford innumerable fresh insights into this life-affirming music with a degree of personal conviction largely unmatched since Anna Bylsma's ground-breaking sets appeared in 1979 and 1992.
Dispute persists as to the type of instrument Bach envisioned for the cello suites, and Sigiswald Kuijken has shown that by the time Bach wrote them in the 1720's, the violoncello da spalla (to be played horizontally or to the shoulder) was in use at Court of Cöthen.
Bach stipulated that in the Sixth Suite a five-stringed violoncello piccolo was to be used, though the Italian da gamba style of cello playing (i.e. held between the knees) was only gradually adopted in Germany during his lifetime.
Tunnicliffe's choice of instruments here seems especially apt: he uses a 1720 cello attributed to Maussiell of Nuremberg in Suites Nos 1-5, and completes the set on a five-string piccolo cello by Pierre Malahar of Bordeaux (1726). Both are pitched at A=415.
The recording itself, made at St George's Church, Cambridge, has been sensitively engineered and the unforced naturalness of the sound is captivating.
Equally, the bite of horsehair on plain gut strings produces its own unique energy and this flavoursome amalgam of natural materials—wood, hair and gut—combined with the cellist's own breathing, conveys the vivid impression that one really is sharing in an unfolding creative process here.
A fascinating article by the CBSO's outgoing and distinguished principal cellist (and noted Bach scholar) Ulrich Heinen, who has recorded the suites himself, identifies physical connections between the dance genres employed and by the way they are formalized choreography might inform actual musical performance. Tunnicliffe shares similar viewpoints and, right from the G major Suite's Prelude, one appreciates the logic and rhythmic contouring of his playing. There's never anything quirky or eccentric about these dance presentations, with each of the Bourrées and Gigues of the First and Third Suites especially made to sound properly jubilant and celebratory. The same goes for the C major Prelude, taken slower than by Queyras, but with the harmonic supporting structure underpinned more cohesively in the thumb-position string-crossing passage which heads up the second page. Queyras and Bylsma (most notably in his remake) each sound heavier and more forcefully dramatic at the start of Suite No 3, but one doubts that such a declamatory initial attack is really warranted after hearing Tunnicliffe's more restrained and well-mannered solution. In No 2 in D minor there's an altogether darker, more intense feel: the Prelude and Sarabande, with their synthesis of tragic oration and thoughtful gravitas, are especially moving though less ponderous and probing than with Queyras in his own highly individual but nevertheless convincing performance.
Suite No 5 in E flat poses other technical challenges, yet Tunnicliffe negotiates the complex string crossings of the prelude with agreeable lightness of touch, where so many, Bylsma included, make heavy weather of things. it is the thoughtfulness and absence of overbearing rhetorical posturing that makes Tunnicliffe's clear-sighted and unexaggerated approach seem totally convincing, even if the final Gigue could have gained from a quicker basic tempo. The Fifth Suite in C minor requires the cellist to tune his top string down (scordatura) a tone to G, which alters the instrumental timbre considerably, lending a more visceral, pungent air to a group of dances which consciously re-creates the courtly grandeur of a true 'French' Suite.
This is a strongly characterized and fascinating performance, made by the cellist's own conviction that is deeply moving Sarabande is suggestive of the 'Et incarnatus est' section of Bach's B minor Mass.
Tunnicliffe's insightful interpretation of Suite No 6 doesn't challenge any received points of view as much as it enhances appreciation of Bach's own creative genius. It is a fitting culmination to a vivid, sometimes reflective but above all personally involving cycle in which the unfettered joy of musical rediscovery is given free rein. Much as I was riveted by Queyras's physicality and sense of unfolding drama, his highly dramatized accounts won't suit everyone; and where Bylsma convinces that his way is right often through the sheer forcefulness of a great musical mind at work, neither illuminates these masterpieces with the kind of lightly worn eloquence and refreshing sobriety that Tunnicliffe brings to the table. His music notes, by the way, are quite as fascinating and informative as the performances themselves.