The music Bach composed for keyboards has assumed such a large place in his oeuvre that it's easy to forget he composed for other solo instruments as well. So kudos to Zuill Bailey for putting his 1693 Ex "Mischa Schneider" Matteo Gofriller cello (well, not his exactly-it's on loan from his "private patron") at the service of keeping alive both the memory and the reality of these glowing suites, which, for their two-hour-and-17-minute duration could (almost) make one forget Bach composed for keyboards.
For most Westerners, simply discovering the existence of the music of the late Czech composer Viktor Kalabis, who toiled for most of his long life behind the Iron Curtain, will be reason enough to revel in this three-disc, "limited authorized edition" reissue of recordings heretofore available only as hard-to-acquire imports on the Prague label Suprahon. His range was breathtaking (piano concertos, symphonies, ballet music, string quartets). But, on this evidence anyway, it's the "Canonic Inventions for Harpsichord," featuring the playing of his wife, that brought out his best.
Why is this disc stocked in the "classical" rather than the "easy listening" section? After all, its familiar melodies ("Danny Boy" included) would sound just as natural coming from Zamfir's pan flute. Well, the piano isn't a flute, and O'Conor plays with a non-condescending mixture of sprightliness and reverence. And just when the members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra start to come on a little too traipsingly, the demands placed upon them by the dignified wistfulness of a melody like "I'll Take You Home Kathleen" keep them in line.
Inspired by the Slavonic "Canon of the Guardian Angel" and dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky (a Russian entrepreneur "imprisoned since 2003, presumably on political grounds"), the three movements of Pärt's 35-minute Symphony No. 4 come as close to articulating the paradox of the joy found only in suffering as orchestral music can. His 15-minute choral piece, meanwhile, "Fragments from Kanon pokajanen," articulates that paradox as only Slavonic, church-text-based choral music can. Not insignificantly, the album's epigraph comes courtesy of the 18th-century opponent of the death penalty, Cesare Beccaria.
Talk about bad timing. No sooner does the masterly American cellist Zuill Bailey release his recording of Bach's Six Suites for Solo Cello (Bach Cello Suites [Telarc]) than Sony reissues Yo-Yo Ma's 1983 recording of the very same suites (The Unaccompanied Cello Suites Complete) as digitally remastered in 2009 for-and previously only available in-Ma's 90-disc (!), $600 (!!) boxed set, Yo-Yo Ma: 30 Years Outside the Box.
Never mind that the differences between Bailey's and Ma's recordings only reveal themselves after multiple listenings and even then will strike all but experts as too subtle to debate: Ma's Bach album will win out in the competition for consumer dollars on name recognition alone. But it needn't-at least not among listeners who first encountered these pieces in Ingmar Bergman's film Saraband. The mellifluousness of Bailey's bowing as accentuated by the slight echo of Adam Abeshouse's production consistently captures a sorrow at which Ma's more aggressive technique sometimes only hints.