JS Bach's six suites for solo cello are the highest peaks in the repertoire, the goal of every mountaineering cellist, baroque or modern. Many music-lovers would assert that they are the most profound music ever written for a solo string instrument; I would so assert myself. The challenges in performing them are twofold, technical and interpretational. Twentieth Century modern cellists, in my opinion, met the technical challenges first; it was left for 'historically informed' cellists playing baroque instruments to address interpretation, to revive the dance patterns that explicitly underlie the various movements of each suite and to express the implicit counterpoint - the 'duet' of registers - that pervades this music. Baroque cellists, such as Anner Bylsma, have had the edge in the 'informed' use of double stops but have sometimes lacked the power and precision of moderns. In any case, these pieces defy strictures and canons of taste; the cellist has to come to her/his own terms with them, and part of the listener's excitement will be found in hearing the 'agon'.
Ophelie Gaillard first impressed me with her performances of Boccherini cello concertos, on her CD "Madrid". The technical demands of Boccherini's music exceed those of Bach's, especially in playing the highest notes possible on the instrument. Gaillard amazed me with her facility in reaching the 'neiges eternelles', the 'perpetual snows' near the cello bridge where the bow dusts the strings with rosin. Discovering that Gaillard had recorded the Bach suites was like 'Christmas in July' for me; despite the steep price, I had to have this performance. [It's steep in Europe also; I checked amazon in Germany and France.]
The performance matches, perhaps exceeds, my expectations. It's robust and athletic above all, dark and woody as only a cello can be, not at all buckled-shoe courtly elegance like the Boccherini pieces. It's also almost erotically intimate; one can literally hear Gailliard's breathing during the sarabandes, her fingers tapping the neck, and figurativey feel her knees clasping the cello. The mikes are close, of course. This is what the cellist herself hears while she plays. I close my eyes. I am not audience now. I am the cello, the sound peg of the cello, and I vibrate sympathetically.
Stepping back intellectually, I decided to listen to the first two suites, movement by movement, in mano-a-mano with the performance by the world's most famous living cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. [If he's good enough for Barack, he's good enough for baroque.] Here's the comparison:
TONE: Ma offers more variety of tone and of dynamics, but he's often scratchy and arbitrary. Gaillard's cello sounds warmer and deeper, and frankly more masculine.
INTONATION: Gaillard by a Swedish mile! Ma regularly goes flat as he ascends to the highest passages. No one will ever play all these suites without a 'near miss' or two, not even with editing, but Gaillard's intonation is fabulous, and she doesn't depend on wobbly vibrato to render it.
FLYING FINGERS: Gaillard's tempi in the courantes and other 'fast' dances are daringly fast - she leaves the good horse Ma standing in the gate (Chinese readers? Note the pun?) - and she makes sense of those movements by treating the rapid passagework as decorative and fluid, emphasizing the 'steps' of the melodic dances.
INTERPRETATION: Ma plays this music worshipfully. He takes it personally, in the most expanded sense. It's a joy to hear. Exactly the same should be said, and can be said, about Casals, Rostropovitch, Bylsma, et al. Likewise Gaillard. Ophelie Gaillard is 'historically' trained and brings that understanding to the suites, but her performance on this CD isn't focused on authenticity. It's an assault upon the peaks of virtuosity.
Gaillard's most dramatic and distinct achievement is her interpretation of the sixth suite, which is heard third in this performance, which she plays on a historical piccolo cello with an extra string. Her double and triple stop playing is phenomenal; she sounds like a chamber orchestra at times. I'll crawl out on my twig and declare that, to my ears, this sixth suite is the best I've ever heard and casts all others in the shade. Now I suppose I'll be challenged by other amazoonians to compare Gaillard's art to that of 'giants' of the past and/or to the younger 'historical' cellists. Let me just say that there has never been, and never will be, a single definitive performance of Bach's cello suites, the sort of recording that makes one throw away all others. But if you truly love this music, you need to hear Gaillard play it.