Audiophile Audition Review: BACH: Unaccompanied Cello Suites (Complete)

Look no further—the closest thing to a definitive set of these amazing pieces that I have ever heard.
Published on August 03, 2010

BACH: Unaccompanied Cello Suites (Complete) – Winona Zelenka, cello – Marquis 774718150929 (2 CDs), 135:19 *****

Good Lord in heaven, this was a surprise! Winona Zelenka is a Canadian cellist who studied with, among others, Janos Starker at Indiana University, and his influence is felt heavily in these readings. Starker of course recorded these suites five times (go for his third on Mercury, a three-channel SACD recording of great clarity) and evidently taught Zelenka more appropriate historical methods of bowing and sound production, far removed from the Casals model that she first encountered through his recordings as a child. Zelenka has held positions as Acting Principal Cellist of the Toronto Symphony (and if they have any sense at all they will make that position permanent for her!) and Principal Cellist of the Santa Fe Opera.

In the notes to this recording she takes us through her own interpretative journey through these works, from the aforementioned Casals and Starker to the European historical practice movement, and each of these influences can be felt on these recordings. In fact the only thing that I was expecting but did not—fortunately—get, are manic tempos; Zelenka seems to have an intuitive understanding of what real dance in Bach means and approaches these pieces from the standpoint of human motion, not human eccentricity that is all too common these days in Bach “informed” practice.

I will confess that I am blown away by these recordings—Zelenka’s tone is among the warmest and most invigoratingly burnished that I have ever heard in this music, bar none, and one cannot escape the impression that she has successfully transferred elements of the human voice into her 1707 Cremonese Guarnerius cello, so opulently rich and character-laden is the sound. Time after time, from the opening bars of the G-major Prelude to the more esoteric moments of the tricky and secretive D-major suite she astonishes with her emotional vibrancy and control, knowing when to rein in and when to let out, but always with the utmost consideration of the ascertained intentions of the composer in mind.

I have had a lot of these suites in my collection over the years—currently I favor Starker, as mentioned, Bailey (Telarc), Zeller (M-A), Casals (EMI--you have to have him) [but get the 1996 Grammofono set (AB 78627/8) - a much better reissue...Ed.], Bruns (Opus 111), and Rostropovich (EMI), and I know there are hordes of others. But I can tell you this—Zelenka marches straight to the top of my list. That’s right—this is the single best set of these suites that I have ever heard, and the magnificent depth and broad range of her gorgeous Marquis recording serves her cause very well. Told you I was surprised!

-- Steven Ritter