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Classical 101

New Shoulder Cello Recording by Sigiswald Kuijken

I like oddities, those novelties that surprise and delight.  The world of classical music has many oddities, but one new addition to the fold recently crossed my desk here at WOSU and—as oddities often do—piqued my curiosity.  Sigiswald Kuijken, the middle of the three Kuijken brothers who for decades now have borne the standard for historically informed performance, has released a recording of the Bach solo cello suites.  Kuijken’s brother Wieland is the gambist of the family, and on this recording Sigiswald performs these monumental works on the violoncello da spalla, or “shoulder cello.â€?  The result makes one hear these works and imagine aspects of their context of creation rather differently than many previous recordings do. The recording’s performance notes argue that the shoulder cello, not the cello held between the knees, was the instrument for which Bach originally composed his solo cello suites. To illustrate this intriguing story, the booklet includes reproductions of seventeenth-century engravings and paintings depicting musicians playing absolutely enormous violins horizontally on their shoulders rather than between the legs.  Kuijken, a violinist and violist, was taken enough by this historical possibility that, in 2005, he commissioned Dmitry Badiarov to make a violoncello da spalla for him.  The instrument Kuijken holds in the photo on the CD’s back cover is a far cry from the gargantuan instruments the period artwork represents, appearing not too much larger than a viola.

The Sound

(Audio is here) In Kuijken’s hands, the violoncello da spalla sounds less like a proto-cello and more like the scratchy-throated aunt of the viola, but that’s not all bad.  In fact, I think it’s good.  After decades of lush, romanticized recordings by world-class virtuosi of the “modernâ€? cello, the sound of Kuijken’s instrument brings a bit of dirt to Bach’s suites, now to our ears so over-polished as to ring like cut crystal. There’s grit between the notes, particularly, it seems, where string crossings might be involved, and Kuijken’s bow seems to like taking bites of out of its companion’s strings once in a while.  Kuijken’s elegant yet unaffected interpretations showcase the sound of the instrument.  And it’s the instrument—not Kuijken, not Bach—that is the star of this recording. As Bill Hebert, the Cleveland Orchestra’s former veteran piccolo player, once said of Bach, “a man who had 20 children is a romantic at heart.â€?  No doubt.  But that man also had grit and a certain realness that our cult-like worship of Bach’s genius has virtually erased.  Whether or not Kuijken’s recording brings us closer to how Bach intended these works to be played and how they might have been heard in his day is a moot point, since they bring us, in my opinion anyway, a few steps closer to the real Bach in all his gritty, scratchy humanity.