Melinda Bargreen | 10 APR 2020
Inspiration, testing ground, source of endless beauty: J.S. Bach’s six Suites for Solo Cello occupy a unique pinnacle in the music world. From their earliest days, most cellists live with the Suites, developing strong feelings about interpretation and the most subtle, minute details of performance. Bach’s Suites are intimate companions, testing grounds, and a way to measure the depth, personality, and skills of the performer.
The Atlanta-based cellist André Laurent O’Neil, now 53, has released his 2015 recording of the Bach Suites on a John Morrison baroque cello (ca. 1800), and a 2006 Wang Zhi Ming violoncello piccolo (for the Suite No. 6).
Remarkable for its tonal variety and also for the cellist’s imaginative approach to phrasing, this set is consistently interesting and engaging, no matter how familiar these well-traveled masterpieces might be to the listener. No musical line is ever repeated or ornamented quite the same way. There’s always something expressively new for the ear to find and the mind to reflect upon. The repeats feature different ornaments, different dynamics and phrasing, so that each suite seems continuously to evolve. Nothing is left to chance, and yet the playing sounds spontaneous, never overly studied.
Vibrato is almost absent; it is used very sparingly as a rare expressive device, along with a wide variety of articulations and a masterly sense of dynamics. O’Neil’s control at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum is impressive indeed. In the quieter movements, such as the Sarabande of Suite No. 5, he refines the sound right down to a mere thread without ever losing control of the forward pulse of the phrases. The cellist often varies the instrument’s colors by playing the same passage on different strings during repeats, always an effective expressive tool.
O’Neil brings several decades’ worth of experience and serious study to these recordings. His influences over the years include Anner Bylsma (whose Bach Suites O’Neil heard as a high-school student); O’Neil’s teacher at Yale, Aldo Parisot (who evidently did not share his student’s passion for the Suites); Dmitry Markevitch (who introduced him to the baroque cello); Norbert Zaubermann (who inspired him and taught him Bach’s scordatura tuning for the C Minor Suite); and finally Jaap ter Linden, with whom O’Neil studied for three years at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague.
In his liner-notes essay, O’Neil observes that he used Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript as the primary source, and that his “efforts to recreate Bach’s sound world” include his instrument’s historical setup, with gut strings and baroque-period temperament. While O’Neil’s is a fairly strict textual interpretation for the most part, there are a few exotic touches (including a surprise accidental or two in the Prelude of Suite No. 5, and some liberties in Allemande of No. 6); these, however, are not at all jarring. What shines through these unhurried and ruminative performances of the Suites is O’Neil’s obvious love and deep understanding of these iconic works. The focus is always on Bach. ■
Editor’s note: Additional information about this CD is available on the website of New Trinity Baroque.