Gramophone Award Nominees – Baroque Instrumental – A Quick Note Before It’s Too Late

The list of nominees in the Baroque Instrumental category looked less attractive to me this year, already driven by the fact that I didn’t own any of the listed recordings. Plus the fact that the list contains 3x Vivaldi, who isn’t very high on my priority list.

But given that the winners will be formally announced tomorrow, I had a quick rather unprofessional scan, and let me pull out my crystal ball here on who should win in my humble rather biased opinion. Please take this with a huge grain of salt, it is based on rather limited listening and even more on gut feel than my previous posts here (instrumental), here (concerto), and here (chamber), where I actually spent some decent amount of time listening.

Too much Vivaldi

Just looking at the nominee list, without listening to the albums, I would have predicted Rachel Podger to win, as I usually love what she does. Based on the snippets I heard, she does well on the Vivaldi, too. But I don’t care enough about Vivaldi to actually buy this album.

Same goes for the two other candidates with Vivaldi albums, which I quickly streamed. I didn’t particularly like the Venice Golden Age album, although I usually like AKAMUS a lot. Maurice Steger’s flute concerto sounds ocasionally like Papageno on speed, but actually is quite a bit of fun. I may end up buying this eventually just for the good mood.

I only quickly skimmed the CPE Bach album of Rebecca Millers approach to the symphonies, but this is not repertoire I listen to a lot (CPEs keyboard concertos with Staier are much better), and what I heard didn’t motivate me to go much further.

I like Mahan Esfahani’s work elsewhere, but Hyperion is another label not allowing streaming, so I didn’t properly listen to this one either. I’m also much less familiar with Rameau overall, so anyhow I wouldn’t be a good judge. Probably worth checking out.

David Watkin

So let me get to the positive surprise of this lot: David Watkin’s Cello Suites on Resonus. I must admit that initially I kind of thought to myself “Seriously, another recording of the Cello Suites is all what we need” (note that I’ve recently praised Steven Isserlis excellent recording here).

I even had missed all the praise in the press this recording had previously received, probably due to the same biased thinking.

David Watkin Bach Cello Suites Resonus

But then I started listening.

And honestly, I was very positively surprised, this version sounded incredibly “right” to me, intuitively exactly like it should have sounded. The historic cello he plays is probably part of it, I don’t know what it is, but if this recording doesn’t win in the category I’d be very surprised!

In less than 24h we’ll know more.

Bach Cello Suites – Purity at the highest level

While Brahms made it into the title of my blog, as he’s been historically my favorite composer, I may as well have mentioned Bach. I know I’m not very creative in my choice of composers as good old Johann Sebastian figures in so many best of composers lists, but to be fair, he’s there for a reason.

Bach in a way is the founding father of modern music. Anything before him sounds if you listen to it today very “old” (take early Baroque like Monteverdi or Renaissance artists), but most stuff from Bach, if you hear it today, sounds relatively contemporary in the chord changes and harmonies. Is it because the well-tempered scale was invented around that time? Well, more scholarly minds than me have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it.

You can never have enough Bach. There is barely a month where I don’t add a new Bach album to my collection (latest additions were Claire-Marie LeGuay’s album and Pierre Hantaï’s English Suites). His St. Matthew’s and St John’s passions are a must hear every year doing the Easter period (and again, I’m not religious at all), there is no Christmas without his Oratorio, his Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, while being the “pop” music of his time, still please after 100s of times being heard. His b-minor mass is probably the most beautiful liturgical work ever written (ok, it has serious competition, but anyhow). His sonatas for solo violin are about the only way a single violin on its own is enjoyable to listen to.

And now writing about another of his solo masterpieces: the Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012). Pablo Casals did a great job promoting them, and his recording still is a must have. Unfortunately, from a recording point of view it is really not pleasure.

Steven Isserlis

Now which one to choose if you want a contemporary one? A tough decision, given that pretty much every Cello player on earth has played (and often recorded) them. My personal favorite at this stage is Steven Isserlis 2007 recording on Hyperion.

Bach_ Cello-Suiten - Isserlis

Why this out of this extensive catalogue? Well in any case there are many other beautiful versions I appreciate (Starker, Queyras, Wispelwey to name just a few), what makes Isserlis so special to me is the purity of his tone. As both the bible and the Tropicana commercial say, “nothing added, nothing taken away”. He is not excessive in his tempi or phrasing, there is very little vibrato, the sound of the cello is beautiful, clear, but not overly heavy or dark.

In a way, this recording reminds me of one of those famous Japanese Zen gardens, just freshly raked. You don’t even want to touch the little pebbles, fearing to destroy the balance. This is where Isserlis takes me.

EDIT: August 27, 2015: Thanks to the Gramophone Awards 2015, I finally stumbled across the recent version by David Watkin. See my entry here. Watkins recording is a just outstanding, near-perfect version on a historic cello. I still love Isserlis, but this is even better.