David Watkin (Baroque cellos)
As a soloist, scholar, member of the Eroica Quartet and section leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, David Watkin has been a vital presence in the UK’s historically informed performance culture for decades, but he has lately turned more to conducting. If this deeply considered and vitally conceived set of the Old Testament of the cello is an envoi to his instrument, it is a lasting one, well worthy of comparison with the high watermarks in the long history of the Cello Suites on record.
The Preludes are shaped with a strongly rhetorical, almost conversational sense of phrase, with some unusual turns of accent that (such as in the Third Suite) turn the music to our attention in a new light. The inner dances are similarly ruminative, even in the sprightly Courantes, without ever losing the life-force of a pulse; there are other more evidently dance-oriented approaches imaginable, but few that so vividly tell a story about each Suite. The Fifth’s Prelude is rich in implied counterpoint that drags its feet like an old man walking with his mind already turned towards the heavens; the Second is knottier and more experimental than usual, trying out the harmonic implications of a D major arpeggio with a student’s step-by-step progress. In the Minuet of that Suite, Fournier is gruff and harsh, the Kaiser on his throne where Watkin is the graceful courtier.
It helps that player, producer (Adam Binks) chapel acoustic and instruments all conspire to build a tonal plan as opulent and intricate as a Baroque palazzo, immediately easy on the ear but issuing a gilded invitation to listen further. In the Bourées and Minuets Watkin is unafraid of the rich open-string resonance of his Rugeri cello. For the last and most exploratory of the set he switches to a five-string violoncello piccolo by the Brothers Amati which Watkin’s note – comprehensive, authoritative and no less friendly for that – aptly compares to Richard Strauss’s horn writing in its realized potential for the grand sweep, the big gesture and oratorical stature so true to Bach. If time almost stands still in the Allemande, all nine minutes of it, it is only with the melancholic contemplation of one who surveys a landscape and finally sees his own small place within it. This sense of scale anticipates the Romantic ideal embodied by Schumann and Brahms but the visionary musicians – and Watkin is one – have found it in Bach without wrenching him from his own time and place.