Richard Narroway’s new release of the Bach Cello Suites gives us the best of both worlds
Every cellist since Casals (and many before), see the monument staring them in the face: the six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello of Johann Sebastian Bach. Thanks to Pablo Casals’ artistic pioneering over a century ago, the world of listeners as well as cellists finally understood in full that these were not academic or cerebral exercises, and certainly not just “for cellists.”
And so the moment comes—sooner rather than later—when a young aspirant’s career demands that he or she presents their vision of these monumental works. The works themselves, especially given collectively in recording or concert, can be daunting enough; with the recorded legacy of Casals, Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich (to name just the obvious examples!) easily accessible for comparison, one can imagine the fortitude—and artistic certitude—the new kid on the block must possess. Oh…and what about those other pioneers of the last fifty years or so who have restored the historical context of these works, with their contributions via authentic performance practice?
Enter Richard Narroway: a young Australian who, with this Sono Luminus release of these Bachian pillars, has made his mark by endeavoring to give us the best of both worlds: he plays on a modern instrument (a 1930 Carl Becker cello, made in Chicago, with a modern bow), but strives to employ some lessons of phrasing and articulation gleaned from the authentic practitioners.
I won’t pretend to have the expertise or listening experience to pass judgment as to how much and how effectively Narroway pulls that off. But I will admit a lifelong bias (on the whole) to the sound of modern strings versus the versions replicated today to represent the turn of the 18th century. Having put that disclaimer up front, I will also state that for many years the Rostropovich set of Bach suites sat on my shelf, later joined by Ma’s, and I thoroughly enjoy them both. Now they have more company.
The accompanying booklet is more detailed than we often get these days, and Narroway provides solid insights on the history (and allure) of the works, as well as questions of manuscripts, etc. In a section titled “My Approach” he says in part, “There is plenty of room, I think, to combine an understanding of historical stylistic principles with current trends in modern performance practice. It is by no means as simple as choosing one way or the other. I think ultimately, regardless of what kind of setup one uses, how much one vibrates and so on, the most important thing is that the spirit of the music comes to life, which is often more a matter of phrasing, sound, character, tempo and attention to harmony, than of specific issues of Baroque tuning and style…”
But just as I will not attempt to parse the degree to which Narroway judiciously applies the lessons of authenticity, I will also not do a side-by-side comparison with Rostropovich or Ma, for I have long felt that these works speak anew to us each time, and each performer creates his or her own world with these protean materials, with a degree of success that stands alone.
In all, I made three complete traversals of these performances on disc over a period of a couple of months; sometimes the listening was more casual, sometimes while driving, more often in the home office. I did listen to No. 5 more often and more closely—not long after receiving the discs, my 2018 assignments for Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival annotations came out, with the Fifth Suite on the list. That was a serendipitous bonus…
Most of these movements, as in other Baroque suites of the day, originate in dance forms, and it is natural to expect some measure of exuberance in such music. But just as Narroway reveals a plethora of emotional nuances in what, at face value, are “simple dances,” he also gives us shadings of a joyous life-force in the broader, more sober Preludes.
To be a little more down to earth in describing Narroway’s achievement, he makes his instrument purr, growl, sing, yearn—in short, Narroway has at his disposal a sonic palette of many hues, each put at the expressive service of this sublime music. He manages, as all successful practitioners of this music must, to beguile us at times into forgetting that we are hearing but one player. And the final feeling this listener is left with is to wonder what we will hear next from Narroway. I for one will eagerly sample whatever he brings next; perhaps it’s because of the unaccompanied music here, but I’m intrigued to hear what he would bring in some of the great chamber music, particularly the works with clarinet (oops, there’s my own bias, again!).
One thing is certain: Narroway has made his case for the world of listeners to sit up and take notice; and whatever else is on your shelf that starts with a “B” and features another great cellist or two, strongly consider making some room for Narroway’s Bach testament.