Nathaniel Rosen's riveting Bach Suites

March 26, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Six Bach Suites for solo cello are perhaps the greatest music for the instrument and almost every cellist wants to record them. The first recording of these pieces by Pablo Casals in the late 1920s established these pieces in the repertory, and although they have been recorded many times since, the Casals set still holds a special place.

To the cellists who have succeeded him, the Casals interpretations remain a source of illumination, a point of departure and a standard to challenge.

In the 1950s and '60s, the great Hungarian cellist Janos Starker ++ recorded the Suites twice -- a third recording in the 1980s was less impressive -- and became the antithesis to Casals' thesis.

Casals interpreted these pieces freely -- as a singer might -- and he placed them in a heroic and Romantic, even Faustian, context. Starker viewed the Suites as instrumental, rather than vocal music, and he performed them with heretofore unheard exactitude of pitch and virtuosic intensity, revealing more of their Baroque dance qualities than Casals had.

In the 1970s, the Dutch cellist, Anner Bylsma, followed Starker's lead, but went farther -- interpreting the Suites on a reproduction of an 18th-century cello that Bach himself might have recognized.

Moreover, Bylsma's performances reflected his extensive study of Baroque performance practice.

Cellists today must come to terms with all three of these approaches, and the superb American cellist, Nathaniel Rosen, has recorded a set of the Suites (John Marks Records JMR 6/7) that stands alongside the best modern versions of Yo-Yo Ma, Heinrich Schiff and Mischa Maisky.

Rosen, like Casals and like his great teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky, adopts what might be called a free and vocal approach to this music. But unlike Casals and Piatigorsky, who interpreted the music in a 19th-century operatic manner, Rosen (who will perform in Shriver Hall tonight at 7:30) performs these pieces with vocal inflections that suggest a soloist in one of Bach's great sacred works.

He casts the music in a heroic mold -- but it is the heroism of the "St. Matthew Passion" or the "Mass in B Minor." Rosen's use of color, while delicately applied and most effective, is serious and often somber. As the cellist himself writes in a program note: "Playing a Bach Suite is like breathing: one shouldn't do it to impress an audience."

One can, of course, disagree. There is an element in Bach's music that exhibits a theatrical delight in virtuosity that is almost Lisztian. And other cellists, notably Starker and Ma, have created more excitement in the leaps in the Fifth Suite's first Gavotte and greater joyousness in the sprightly Gigues of the Third and Sixth Suites.

But no one makes this music more riveting than Rosen, and in LTC certain pieces -- the tragic Second Suite and the monumental Fourth, for example -- he sets a standard for the cellists who will follow him.


To hear an excerpt from Nathaniel Rosen's recording of the Six Bach Suites, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338.

Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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