Sunday, June 6, 2010

Winona Zelenka Interprets J.S. Bach’s Six Suites For Solo Cello: Earthy And Immediate

Completed in 1723, the J.S.Bach suites BWV 1007 – 1012 are a rite of passage for the cellist. The history of the composition and its reputation for cello players around the world has produced high expectations due to their familiarity with audiences and with fellow musicians. For Canadian cellist Winona Zelenka it must have been a rather daunting task to record the suites and then be subject to comparison to every cellist who's come before. Mstislav Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky, Yo Yo Ma, Anner Bylsma and the great Pablo Casals, to name five, have recorded the Six Suites for solo cello.

The cello suites offer a musician a technical and emotional trip than is demanding, playful and contemplative. As Baroque compositions, they offer dances and rhythmic variations that require the deepest commitment and concentration of the player. This has, to my ear, been a mixed blessing for Zelenka, who makes tempo changes more frequently than her predecessors whose interpretations were based on either Baroque or Romantic styles of playing. (Baroque style favours more use of open strings) In other words, a level of expectation about "how" to play these pieces leaves little room for interpretation, strictly speaking. That said, how does this recording measure up? To begin, the suites have been separated on two CDs: Suites 1, 3 and 5 on disc one and Suites 2, 4 and 6 on disc two. Already a statement in itself, separating the suites says something about our expectations: should we listen to them in sequence? Zelenka would suggest 'no'. (or at least her producer may have thought so) Curiously, they weren’t recorded in sequence or in one or two weeks. The recordings were made between 2007 and 2010 as clearly stated in the liner notes. Perhaps I didn’t need to know that in advance, but time can alter a musician’s approach to music, either emotionally or technically.

Suite #4, in E flat Major, is the strongest of the performances: balanced, emotional and introspective. Recorded in 2009, two years after Suite #6, this one has the maturity of sound the others seem to lack. It's a focused performance and has the perfect amount of nuance. Suite #6, in D Major, was recorded in 2007 and is the most familiar to Zelenka who tells us in the notes that it was the most challenging to learn at the age of ten! Nevertheless by age 13, Zelenka had learned all six suites and often played them in music competitions such as the Kiwanis Festival in Toronto. Winona Zelenka has found a voice for the suites that is at times unconventional and a little rough, but she does so with conviction and commitment to her instrument and her love of Bach. After hearing this simple, organic recording (it was made in a small room without any added reverb or special effects), I'm convinced that this album will stand out for its earthy, immediate sound and its dedicated cellist.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.

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