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GRAMOPHONE ( 04/ 2019)
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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

Like many cellists, Alban Gerhardt says he has been wary of recording the Bach Suites before he was good and ready. Now he has finally done it, with a rider that it was his approaching 50th birthday that prompted him rather than any feeling that he has arrived at a settled interpretation. ‘It can only be a snapshot’, he cautions; ‘this music always leaves room to search deeper and deeper’.

In any case, his performances do not sound like the kind that would ever have become set in stone; they are too personal and spontaneous-sounding for that. Take the Prelude of the Fourth Suite, a fantasia in Gerhardt’s hands in which each subtly changed iteration of the tumbling brokenchord figures seems freshly interpreted, framing freer sections that roam adventurously. Or the Sixth Suite’s teasingly lingering Gigue. Or the approach to repeats that makes each moment of return sound like an enthusiastic decision made right there and then. Movements, too, relate to each other convincingly: when the Fifth Suite’s beautiful Sarabande has drifted drowsily to an end, the ensuing Gavotte is a perfectly judged wake-up; and after the loving caresses of the First Suite’s Prelude, the Allemande is a carefree release.

Gerhardt can sound deliciously at ease in this music, whether moving with swift grace through a Sarabande or skipping with jaunty assurance through a Menuet or Gavotte. And his sound is glorious – a silvery tenor register (especially in the high-lying Sixth Suite) capping an overall tone that is rich without ever being overbearing. In the booklet he says that, while he ‘oriented’ himself with Baroque performance, he personally felt a need to marry deep tone to carefully used vibrato and ‘seemingly effortless articulation’. The use of vibrato is certainly well judged, but to my ears the articulation, though imaginatively varied, is often overdone, amounting at times to choppiness. It’s a way of keeping air in the music, of course, but it can also be disruptive and at its worst some may find it irritating. By comparison, Truls Mørk’s 2005 recording (Erato, 2/06) – another one of exquisite tonal beauty – sounds more naturally lyrical, while Steven Isserlis’s Gramophone Awardwinner of 2005-06 (Hyperion, 7/07) is also an endless display of eloquently expressed ideas, but with a less interrupted flow. But is his own personal way Gerhardt is no less a master.

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