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Bach: Complete Solo Cello Suites / Ailbhe Mcdonagh

Release Date: 02/02/2024
Label: Steiway & Sons Catalog #: 30232
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:  Ailbhe Mcdonagh Number of Discs: 2

Cellist Ailbhe McDonagh has garnered international acclaim as a soloist and chamber musician. Her new album on the Steinway label features Bach’s complete Suites for Solo Cello - some of the most beautiful, challenging, and intricate works composed for the instrument. This is the first published recording of Bach’s complete Cello Suites by an Irish cellist.

Album Credits:
Produced with funding by the Arts Council of Ireland. Recorded August 15 - 22 2022 at TU Dublin Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland.
Producers: Orla McDonagh, Ailbhe McDonagh
Engineer: Ben Rawlins

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda
Read more Carrasquillo
Project Coordinator: Renée Oakford
Photo of Ailbhe McDonagh: Marshall Light Studio

Bach’s six suites for solo cello are more than a rite of passage for cellists. They are an invitation to sublimity, a chance not only to interpret the music but also to put one’s own stamp on it – frequently multiple times during one’s performing career, since the suites’ meaning and significance seem to change considerably over time as a performer gains familiarity with the music plus his or her own maturity and mastery. The same happens to be true for audiences: no matter how many cellists one hears in this music, there is always something new to discover, some way in which the tripartite experience (composer + performer + instrument) differs from all others and sheds new light on a listener’s perception.

Just as Bach’s religious music transcends the Lutheran tradition in which it was created, so the cello suites and other instrumental works are unbound by time or geography – a reality further documented in the new Steinway & Sons recording featuring Ailbhe McDonagh, whose status as the first Irish cellist to record all six suites is a matter that is both of justifiable pride and wholly irrelevant to the music.

McDonagh’s personal vision of the suites is a restrained Romantic one rather than one that is historically focused or determined to play the music as Bach and his contemporaries would have heard it. She does not hesitate to use crescendos and diminuendos, swells, rubato and other techniques of emphasis in order to bring out the underlying emotional connective tissue of the suites. This means that their foundational structure tends to be somewhat diminished: notably, the dancelike rhythmic elements of the majority of movements are lessened here, although scarcely absent. It also means that these performances are strongest in the slower and more-emotive portions of the suites: the Sarabande movements are deeply felt and very moving, with the unusual and profound one in Suite No. 5 – a movement wholly lacking in double stops and thus having an inherent purity of single-string sound – being a highlight of McDonagh’s cycle.

Actually, there are highlights aplenty here. McDonagh plays an 1833 cello by Andrea Postacchini (1781-1862), who is far better known for his violins but whose larger string instruments (including violas, basses and guitars) also show remarkable, almost buttery smoothness of tone and evenness of sound production in all ranges. Certainly that is the case with McDonagh’s cello, which does not have quite the sonorous depth of a few other instruments in its lowest range but which is exceptionally consistent in sound all the way to its top notes – a distinct advantage for the Bach cello suites. McDonagh plays as if the cello is an extension of her thinking as well as her body: there is a sense of unity of player and played that gives the suites a wholly pleasurable sense of cohesion.

McDonagh handles the suites’ technical demands with apparent ease: the complexities throughout No. 4, for example, and the string crossings in the first minuet of No. 2. Her cello’s sound works as well in Suite No. 5 (originally written for scordatura tuning) and Suite No. 6 (most likely composed for a five-stringed instrument and frequently played on one) as it does in the first four suites. The elegance and warmth of the performances come through as well in the few movements with a single melodic line (not only the Sarabande of Suite No. 5 but also the second minuets of Suites Nos. 1 and 2, the second bourrée of Suite No. 3, and the concluding gigue of Suite No. 4) as in the much-more-frequent movements employing double stops. Those same characteristics are actually evident in every movement of every suite – and they tend to overshadow individual movements’ lighter and brighter elements. The French overture that starts Suite No. 5, for example, is deeply emotional at the beginning but somewhat less convincing in the speedy fugue used for the latter part of the movement.

It is always possible, of course, to nitpick any performance of these suites – and it is almost always unfair to do so. The best cellists make these works their own through a strong and consistent commitment to the music and a willingness to share that devotion (which does take on almost spiritual connotations) with listeners. McDonagh’s recording is clearly that of a performer at once highly skilled from a technical standpoint and highly thoughtful from an expressive one. Her rendition of the suites is quite convincing on its own terms – and certainly compares favorably with the many other first-rate recordings of these unsurpassed works.

-- Infodad

Bach’s six suites for solo violoncello have been a staple of every cellist’s repertoire since Pablo Casals brought them to popular attention in the early twentieth century. They even have a website dedicated to them, and I learn from there that they have been recorded over two hundred times down the years; frequently cellists have returned to them several times.

Into this crowded field comes Ailbhe McDonagh’s cycle. If this recording demands attention, it does not make a headline of the fact: it is not the decidedly rapid cycle of Sergey Malov on cello da spalla (Solo Musica, 2020) nor the maverick multitracked cycle of Maya Beiser (Islandia Music, 2023). It doesn’t have any striking phrasing choices such as Bruno Cocset’s forte staccato bass notes in the prelude to his fourth suite (Alpha, 2001), nor does it deviate from the score in the way that some historically informed performances suggest Bach would have expected (as Malov does with his ornamentation). Perhaps it is worth something that McDonagh’s is the first recording by an Irish cellist, but I’m not sure what value that might be.

McDonagh’s recording is worth attention, but it’s for more subtle reasons than these. One reason might indirectly be the ‘Irish’ aspect. She mentions in the cursory liner notes that she enjoyed bringing out the Irish jig in the gigues that finish each suite. I am not sure about this – there are plenty of nimble recordings – but in their easy liveliness her gigues, as well as the other up-tempo dances, are nevertheless a particular strength of this cycle. Some older recordings, such as Pierre Fournier’s (Deutsche Grammophon, 1961), take the gigues too slowly; modern (e.g. Yo-Yo Ma’s third cycle (Sound Postings, 2018)) and especially historically informed (either of Anner Bylsma’s cycles) recordings tend to be brisker, but still often use classical rubato. McDonagh keeps the pulse just that bit steadier, the dynamics just that bit more muted, so that the gigues have the character of dances as much as of finales. Perhaps that’s the ‘Irish’ she brings to them.

‘Muted’ is a term that could be said of McDonagh’s cycle more generally. Her light, sometimes breathy cello tone is often an asset, helping to give her cycle something of a pure or transparent character, as if McDonagh is deferring to Bach rather than placing herself between him and us. She adds just enough to the music to bring out its phrasal structure but otherwise lets it speak for itself. Her light tone is not just effacement: it also gives its own colour to the music. The prelude to the fifth suite sounds mysterious rather than ominous as it does in, say, Hidemi Suzuki’s 2004 DHM recording (or his All of Bach version).

More generally, what McDonagh gives us in lieu of eye-catching decisions concerning interpretation or instrumentation is a minutely felt and delightful musicality. In her choice of how exactly to weight a fermata or how to handle a miniscule accelerando, in her charting of a path between sentimental and showy, she consistently makes quietly tasteful choices. This is particularly noticeable in movements such as the first suite’s allemande, where the page presents long runs of semiquavers without obvious interpretive cues. Some performers, in deducing the musical sense in the score, overegg things, but McDonagh trusts our ears to follow the logic latent in the notes. She also displays this restraint in the slower movements, giving the second suite’s sarabande, for example, a slow but plaintive pulse.

Some of the suites are more distant than others from the dance forms in their ancestry, and demand something different. Sometimes McDonagh delivers this, as in her exuberant gigue to the third suite. But sometimes her light tone can be a weakness, not always delivering the gravitas the music needs. The sarabande of the fifth suite, in particular, sounds ungrounded, its notes isolated.

I have other quibbles here and there: for example, the gigue to the second suite sounds a touch rushed at points. The more serious problem, though, is the sixth suite. This suite presents an immediate challenge for any interpreter because it was written for a five-string cello with a higher range than the standard cello (probably a piccolo cello, or perhaps the cello da spalla mentioned above). Cellists who play this suite on four strings, as McDonagh does, find themselves performing feats of virtuosity in a range of the instrument that cries out to be played with a pathos that is inappropriate to the suite: although the longest of the six, it is not proto-Romanticism, as some have thought. McDonagh avoids this pitfall, delivering a moderate, lively and light performance. This is undone, though, by the tuning issues in this suite: elsewhere on the recording they are beneath mention, but they are obtrusive here to the extent that it should have been re-recorded. I would go further and say that it should have been performed on five strings, which would have suited McDonagh’s interpretation better too.

McDonagh’s cycle is a humble one, but it is precisely therein that the success of this recording lies. McDonagh doesn’t draw attention to herself but instead to the musical line. It’s a shame about the sixth suite, and more generally, the album would not have been worse for being a bit more adventurous or historically informed. But in a world of a hundred adventurous recordings there’s a lot to be said for doing a thing simply but well.

-- Journal of Music
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