Published in Vol. 9 No. 8 of La Scena Musicale
Après tous les enregistrements déjà existants,
après de nombreuses versions historiques sur intruments modernes
ou anciens... pourquoi refaire, encore une fois, les Suites pour violoncelle
seul ? Il faut être un peu fou, peut-être, ne pas avoir
peur de la comparaison... et avoir quelque chose à dire. Et
cette musique de Bach est tellement belle, tellement riche, qu'il
est facile de comprendre le désir de la jouer des interprètes.
Sergei Istomin a visiblement quelque chose à dire. Violoncelliste
et gambiste, il a fait partie du noyau de l'orchestre Tafelmusik et
a joué avec de nombreux ensembles de musique ancienne à
travers le monde. Son interprétation des Suites de Bach, sur
instrument ancien, est superbe. On reconnait on grand musicien, avec
des idées et la capacité de les transmettre. Les intentions
sont claires, appuyées par un rythme souple et un jeu subtil
de nuances. Il n'a pas un son propre, parfait, aseptisé, mais
un son vivant et riche, toujours dans le mouvement. Même dans
les préludes plus lents, on ne s'ennuit pas du vibrato romantique.
Istomin réussit à donner de l'ampleur à ses phrasés
sans artifice. Ce disque est une version remasterisée (en 24
bit.) d'un enregistrement de 1997.
In February our CD Pick of the Week featured Mendelssohn's works for cello and piano, and it was then we were first introduced to the talents of Sergei Istomin. For his latest release he's joined by the Dutch period instrument group Apollo Ensemble (who most recently performed here in a program of Jewish Baroque music at the Kennedy Center last year). This ensemble, founded in 1992, takes an interesting approach, as noted in their biography: "For the group, ensemble play(ing) means to search for the extremes of playing together and to pursue an intense interaction between its musicians." This point of view could be frightening, but the result in this recording is exceptionally smooth, delicate and precise playing. Istomin's cello is a model of sweetness and rich tone, and Haydn is obviously revered by these well-matched players. It's a lovely and loving expression; Haydn's music at its best.
Audio Ideas Guide (Canada)
"...Virtuosity and interpretative depth are definitely in one's mind listening to Sergei Istomin playing the Bach Cello Suites."
The Victoria Times (British Colombia, Canada) www.classical.net
"...Istomin's sound is very fine... It is a rich, vibrant sound,yet clear and bright. A model, in fact, of period performance at its very best."
The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)
"...listening to Istomin play Bach is like listening to a gifted storyteller. His engagement with these masterpieces is a human engagement; very persona!, easy in their command of musical space, unrushed, creating a breadth of projection in which detail is tenderly displayed."
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
"...Intelligence and emotional commitment mark this balanced account of these works. Istomin produces a vital, expressive sound and, with consummate skill and an ear for the whimsical, shapes the 36 dance movements that make up the suites."
The Globe and Mail (Canada's National Newspaper)
"...Sergei Istomin's fine recording is the best I've yet heard on a period instrument... This young Russian-born 'cellist has absorbed the reformers' precepts about tonal weight and clarity of bowing without becoming formulaic about how he applies them."
The Globe and Mails ten noteworthy classical discs from 1997
"...Playing on low-pitched gut strings, with a grainy, breathy sound, Istomin takes a lingering approach."
The Gazette (Montréal, Quebec, Canada)
"...Istomin prefers a less tensile attack, drawing the listener into the sonority rather than thrusting his sound into a hypothetical concert hall."
Continuo Magazine (USA),www.continuo.com
"...Mr. Istomin's performances are technically precise, rhythmically secure and stylistically apt. And, he knows how to work a phrase to its logical, expressive conclusion."
The Strad (United Kingdom)
"...Sergei Istomin is not only assured technically, with largely impeccable intonation and admirable control, but he is also musically alert and stylistically perceptive."
Répertoire des disques compacts (France)
"...Istomin prend un véritable plaisir à faire sonner son instrument... la pensée générale est magnifique et le parcours est techniquement superbe."
Le Nord magazine (France)
"Quand on s'attaque avec succès aux Six suites pour violoncelle seul de Bach, on entre dans la cour des grands. Il faut dire que passer par le conservatoire de Moscou puis le conservatoire Oberlin aux Etats-Unis, cela vous forme un interprète de premier ordre."
The intellectual challenge of music reviewing is, one never knows exactly what one will get for review. One often finds the unexpected in the monthly box of goodies. Then one has to devise a small essay appropriate to the music at hand. So it was with the usual curiosity that I plopped the disk of well known cello suites into my tray of surprises. And, indeed, this was a great surprise. Here were the Bach suites all new and fresh, perhaps due to the Russian conservatory trained Sergei Istomin, or due to his original instrument approach to these suites, or due to the period-correct practices outlined in newly discovered performance manuals. These suites were a new venture into old terrain. This time I wore some period-correct filters over my regular eyeglasses.
Over the years, I have listened to two particular sets of this music. One performed by Pierre Fournier, the renown French cellist (on Archiv label LPs), whose style on his recordings (1960) follows the lead of Pablo Casals and emphasizes the light, dance-like qualities of the tempi suggested in the titles; Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, and Gigue, all dances of the day. The other set, performed by Mstislav Rostropovich (on EMI label CDs) – another Russian conservatory trained soloist considered the greatest cellist of his generation – whose style on his recordings (1995) is considerably more dramatic, aiming (as he says in the album notes) for the big emotional effects where possible. Slava, as he is called, seemed to play these suites as pure Romantic era music by de-emphasizing the dance qualities, which pleased some and infuriated others.
Istomin plays the same notes, but his interpretation is one developed out of the growing information base of performance practices of Bach’s era. Since Fournier’s and Rostropovich’s student days, many old manuals of how-to-play various instruments have been discovered. This new information has led to a handful of wonderful new interpretations of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, for example. Here is a new set (2004) of the solo cello suites, played on a period-correct instrument, tuned to A-415 for a somewhat darker sound, informed by performance manuals of the period.The first thing that struck my ear was the call-and-response characteristic of many passages. We know Bach didn’t want for inventiveness. Yet, he wrote in a number of repeat passages. Istomin often drops the volume level on the second of these passages (the response), and in so doing creates the illusion of a dialogue with another instrument farther away, which requires consummate control. This stylistic trope is also found in the most recent of the Vivaldi recordings. Istomin often uses a more relaxed tempo, another period influenced mannerism. Rostropovich, from the outset of the Prelude to the first suite (G Major), takes the tempo to an agitated state that brings the listening exercise to a highly emotional plane. Fournier, liberally applies rubato to generate syncopation, emphasizing the dance quality of the music. Istomin, in that same Prelude, plays at a slower, more cerebral pace, which allows the listener to reflect on the sonorities and harmonies he hears. A- 415 tuning takes the treble edginess down a tad, compared with A- 440, and with the relaxed tempi makes for cooler, more reflective auditioning.Istomin’s performances are a good introduction to the music for a student just learning about Bach, or a welcome addition to a collection rife with garden-variety Bach interpretations. Istomin’s reading is arresting. It is patiently conceived, well reconstructed, and consistently period-correct throughout. These are exceptionally well played, well-recorded cello suites. Istomin is a rare musician. His Bach, quite revelatory. A must-have if you like Bach. Max Dudious
Gramophone (United Kingdom) 1/2005
Solo Bach modern and 'ancient' - and it's Baroque Bach that catches the ear
When it comes to the cello, the difference between the sound of a Baroque model and a modern one is not always as marked as it is with other instruments, especially when the music coming out of it is Bach's Cello Suites. Their unique nature, together with the highly personal response they tend to provoke, confounds the interpretative preconceptions we lazily bring to them, forcing us to open our ears, concentrate hard, and make real value judgements.
Even so, I do not think that in a blind sampling many experienced listeners would find it difficult to guess which of these recordings uses the modern cello and which the Baroque: Marc Coppey unmistakably plays the former, producing a burly sound in the rather unyielding surroundings of IRCAM’s Paris studios, while Sergei Istomin's lean and flexible tone, recorded in the more forgiving acoustic of an Ontario church, is clearly that of the latter. Both performances are technically accomplished and well thought-out. I would not dare to say that one is better, but they are very different.
Coppey was a prizewinner at the 1988 International Bach Competition, and the wait to put the suites down on disc has been rewarded with technical and mental assurance: his intonation is accurate, his tone cultured (despite the unhelpful acoustic), and his double-stops are punched out with a minimum of fuss. His concern is with longer lines and the larger-scale shaping of a movement, which he does unobtrusively and effectively. He is less sensitive, however, to local detail, betraying surprisingly little sense of the relative important of notes within a phrase, and as a result his playing can sound dogged, a bit uniform and wearing.
Istomin, in contrast, attends precisely to the smaller details that Coppey ignores, showing more rhythmic and tonal variety, making the music really dance – try the Gavottes of Suite No 6 to see what I mean - and adopting a more rhetorical approach. Phrases are often marked out with a generously free rubato which, while it can endanger forward momentum, also gives the music a refreshingly improvisatory feel. His intonation is not always as accurate as Coppey's, but this is Bach playing of elegance and delicacy - I love the way his double-stops can be like wispy brush- strokes. In fact, by the time I reached the end of it, I realised that this unassuming release (recorded as far back as 1997) offers one of the most attractive and satisfying 'Baroque' recordings of these pieces yet made.