If you were a composer in the 18th century, it was possible to be “imprisoned” by your patron. Since we know what online streaming royalties pay out to composers these days, the idea of not only having a patron but also being locked into a contract against your will is sadly appealing. But when Johann Sebastian Bach managed to pry himself away from one Duke William Ernest of Saxe-Weimar in 1717, he let the emancipation flow through his quill to create the six famous cello suites, casually referred to as “the cellist’s bible” in Inbal Segev’s liner notes for Bach Cello Suites. Israeli-born Segev is the latest name in a long line of cellists who have attacked these pieces with an attempt to apply a fresh angle that no one has thought of over the past 200-odd years.
The Bach cello suites, despite being rooted in the Baroque era, are flexible little beasts. Over the course of 36 movements spanning close to three-and-a-half hours, the performer encounters no shortage of forks in their individual roads. For one thing, some of the original manuscripts are gone and it was up to the penmanship of Bach’s widow Anna Magdalena to copy his work with as much accuracy as possible. Considering that she gave birth 13 times in her life and had to help raise a gaggle of step-children from Bach’s previous marriage, we can’t expect her handiwork to be flawless. The timeline for when these pieces were written is also hazy, possibly falling in or around other secular instrumental works that tinkered with the format that Bach so strictly followed in his cello suites. Segev explains it rather clearly: “In each of the six suites, a prelude is followed by the dances of the suite: an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue.” And lastly, there’s the ever-present bear trap waiting for you when you claim that you are attempting to crawl inside a composer’s brain. A teacher of mine loved to tell the story of the time he was thrown out of a music theory class, rhetorically asking his teacher “when did you and old Johann have lunch?” (she had the gall to interpret the mechanics of a Bach composition one way and one way only). Segev beholds the Bach cello suites to be “a glimpse into the world beyond, which was, of course, Bach’s inspiration.” The world beyond what? And why the “of course”? If this is an indication of Bach’s spirituality, then it kind of cancels out the other page in the liner notes when the pieces are lumped into a large slab of secular works that Bach composed while under Prince Leopold of Köthen.
But people don’t buy classical music recordings for liner notes. What does Inbal Segev bring to the Bach cello suites? For what it’s worth, she brings a lifelong affinity, beginning with her being “entranced by the magic of these works” at the tender age of six. Fast-forward to 2015 and her double-disc recording of the six suites are clinical and reverential to the point of being solid ice. Raw talent notwithstanding, it’s when you hold her renditions up to the light alongside recordings by Mstislav Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky, and Pablo Casals that it becomes clear just how much character she didn’t insert into her performances. When she plays the prelude to the fifth suite, it sounds like she’s almost afraid of the harmonies she is asked to summon from the score. The peppy “Counrante” from the first suite sounds like a coldly-rehearsed audition.
From start to finish, Inbal Segev’s Bach Cello Suites is a textbook example of classical music so expertly played that it never actually takes flight. And when classical music never reaches the point where it soars, we run into the dreaded “b” word: boring. If we want to counteract the sobering fact that interest in classical music is dying off, then we need to thin the recording herd down to works that can genuinely entrance a young child. Inbal Segev’s six-year-old self would surely agree.