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 Recording of the Week  Wispelwey and Schiff re-visit Bach

Two recent Bach releases to tell you about this week – and both of them examples of musicians coming back to re-record repertoire which they’ve recorded before.

Pieter Wispelwey
Pieter Wispelwey

Firstly Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey celebrating his fiftieth birthday by re-recording for the third time one of the great cornerstones of the cello repertoire – Bach’s six Suites for unaccompanied cello. These suites are full of mysteries, ranging from why Bach wrote them in the first place, what instrument(s) and tuning to use, to all sorts of stylistic and interpretative questions. The fact that there is no manuscript in Bach’s own hand just adds to the uncertainties, and that there is nothing else like them in the repertoire, perhaps all helps explain why Wispelwey feels his ideas and interpretations have changed sufficiently to justify re-visiting these works again on disc.

The most unusual aspect of the new recording is the pitch, where Wispelwey uses what is believed to have been common in Cöthen, Germany – where Bach was working when he wrote the Suites. To do this Wispelwey tunes his cello down a whole tone from what is common today and the result is much more grainy, rustic sound, which at times resembles more a viol or even a double bass than a cello. But combined with Wispelwey’s dancing, light articulation it produces a thoroughly persuasive account.

This release comes complete with an intriguing bonus DVD featuring discussion and debate between Wispelwey and pre-eminent Bach scholars Laurence Dreyfus and John Butt about the mysteries of the Suites and the decisions to be made when performing them. It is a fascinating set and essential listening for all lovers of the cello and Bach in general.

András Schiff
András Schiff

The other musician going back into the studio this year to re-record Bach was Hungarian-born British pianist András Schiff, who earned wide esteem for his 1980s recordings of the composers’ major keyboard works on Decca. Over the last few years his second recordings of the Goldberg Variations and the six Partitas have drawn a whole new wave of appreciation, and his latest release – a four disc set of the complete 48 preludes and fugues of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ – has been one of the highlights of the autumn.

Using virtually no sustaining pedal, Schiff brings great rhythmic and melodic clarity that reveals much of the wonders of this music. Less sentimental than his earlier recording there is a directness and intelligence which combined with careful tempo considerations between preludes and fugues sound on the whole somehow ‘right’. Just occasionally I longed for an extra tenderness or special something, but that may be more due to growing up with other recordings rather than because the music actually demands it.

In summary it is ultimately a credit to Bach that performers go back and re-record his music perhaps more than any other composer. As Schiff stated in the booklet note to his second Partitas recording, “Great music is far greater than its performers”. Musicians spend their whole lives striving for greater insights into things like the structure and the magic of this great music, and it is therefore not surprising that as they get older (and wiser) they feel they have something new to say and want the focus and discipline of a recording to make that new statement.

Sound samples as usual via the links below, plus a short video trailer for the Wispelwey. Enjoy!

Bach, J S: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2

Andras Schiff (piano)

Available Formats: 4 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC