BACH: Cello Suites (complete), BWV 1007-1012. No. 1 in G. No. 2 in d. No. 3 in C. No. 4 in E-flat. No. 5 in c. No. 6 in D.
Richard Tunnicliffe, cello and piccolo cello.
Linn Records CKD 396 TT: 137:52 (2 CDs)

Almost perfect. For me, the solo work for a melody instrument -- like strings, oboe, or trumpet -- represents the highest test of a composer. First, very few melodies fascinate all on their own. Instead, they gain interest from their harmony or their competing contrapuntal lines. Composers have tried to solve these problems in various ways, and many results from certifiably-great composers litter the genre with the mess of failure. In my decades of listening, I haven't found many solo-instrument pieces that transcended the inherent restrictions. Instead, the restrictions tend to dominate and confine them.

Bach, of course, represents the gold standard in this kind of work, with scores for solo violin, solo cello, and solo flute. A listener doesn't normally experience them as puzzles solved or hurdles jumped, but as music -- that's how good they are. If you examine the scores of the Cello Suites, for example, you will find mainly a single line of music on the page. In the ear, however, with a good player, that line transforms into two or three voices, with simultaneous chords at cadences. These manipulations have their roots in the virtuoso Italian string writing of composers like Vivaldi, but Bach puts them to entirely new and more complex purposes. The performer's main job is to bring out those voices from the single line -- a bit like falling under the spell of an optical illusion (is it a vase or two faces?).

My benchmark performances are Pierre Fournier, currently on DG  449711 for a good price. I've never cared for Yo-Yo Ma's very popular set, which to me lags behind Fournier in elegant musicianship. However, Fournier does represent an older style in these works. Of the HIPsters, I haven't heard anybody better than Richard Tunnicliffe. He phrases just about perfectly. He keeps the voices separate and clear. He always knows where he is in the overall arc of the piece, so his interpretation never degenerates into nattering. Most important, he never lets you forget that these works are, at bottom, dances. He also makes several interesting points in his liner notes -- among them, that the suites from 1 to 6 become increasingly more complex, that No. 5 makes use of "false tuning" (scordatura; that is, other than the standard cello tuning of C-G-d-a), and that No. 6 is for a five-stringed instrument known as the piccolo cello. Tunnicliffe is one of the few to play this suite as written, on the instrument Bach intended.

The sound, by the same Linn company that makes high-end music systems, gives us a clean, intimate, "natural" performance. I highly recommend this recording.
S.G.S. (May 2013)

(NOTE: S.G.S. reviewed this recording on a regular CD player and did not hear it in multi-channel sound)