CD REVIEW: JS Bach: Cello Suites

Philip Higham (cello)

Delphian DCD34150

★★★★☆

Philip Higham Bach albumAfter high-profile, highly wrought accounts by David Watkin and Yo-Yo Ma, it’s a pleasure to welcome a plainer but no less personal or satisfying testament to the inexhaustible variety of the six cello suites. Philip Higham writes neatly on white A4 where Watkin’s Gothic script demands historically appropriate vellum but he has no less interesting things to say. They aren’t strictly confined to a historically informed rulebook, but the style is recognisably Baroque, dry and lucid but with a ready access to fantasy: the pamphleteer Defoe to Watkin’s wild Swift.

The preludes to the First and Third Suites are deadpan, flowing rather than high-flown. Vibrato is reserved for harmonic sweet spots, while cadences and closures are more often than not simple full points: end of. Higham doesn’t ‘do voices’ where Watkin acts out drama, nor does he bend and stretch phrases into Ma’s noble but public rhetoric: he’s a companion, even a senior colleague, to the work of teasing many-layered sense from Bach’s single lines of implied counterpoint and harmony. Accordingly the Fourth Suite begins patiently and slowly, taking you through the ropes of arpeggio-writing, dwelling here and there on a knotty point, before using the chains of semiquavers to wave a musical hand as if to say, ‘and so on. The rest you understand.’

Higham and Delphian’s engineers bring us close up to Bach’s workings. It’s a relief to hear the sarabandes without every last drop of pathos being squeezed from them, but a sober-suited approach pays off most handsomely in the complexities of the last two suites. The octave C to open the Fifth Suite carries a rough breathing, in both the literal and rhetorical sense of the term. Strong and proud dotted rhythms direct us down the long and winding road of the Fifth’s Allemande as well as the unbuttoned Courante; the second Gavotte is gabbled, but the return of the First is discreetly ornamented.

For the Sixth, Higham switches from a 1697 Testore to a modern five-string cello by Kai-Thomas Roth and you can taste the difference, like lemon cake after chocolate brownie. He takes some risks thinning out tone in the upper reaches of the instrument, and the lower two strings sound slightly pinched in quick sequences, but the first half of the Allemande and the Sarabande are as soulful and flexible as if he’d tucked it under his chin like a viola. And even in the polyphonic flourishes of the final Gigue, intonation remains as mercifully, reliably secure as it has been throughout. Comparisons should be invidious, but many great names of cello-yore are embarrassed by playing of such uncomplicated good taste and technical refinement.

Cremona Mondomusica - Sept 30th - Oct 1st 2016