Ever since J.S. Bach's cello suites were rescued from gathering dust – boundless gratitude is due here to Pablo Casals, the first to record them back in 1936, for contributing to this – they have become a magnet for audiences all over the globe – and understandably so. Nowadays there is no denying that any cellist wanting to be taken seriously will, at some point, go on a pilgrimage to the Suites, usually never to leave again.

Natalia Gutman © Benjamin Kaufmann
Natalia Gutman
© Benjamin Kaufmann

No autographed manuscript from Bach’s own hand survived, so we have had to make do with three manuscripts from his wife Anna Magdalena, Johann Peter Kellner and Johann Jacob Heinrich Westphal. None of these come without flaws, and neither do the incessant stream of editions that have followed. If room for interpretation exists intrinsically for any score, such room is significantly bigger for the Cello Suites.

Enter Natalia Gutman, nothing short of an interpreter in the broadest possible sense of this word. Sitting somewhere between her most renowned tutor, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Anner Bylsma, one of the first mavericks of the historically informed style, Gutman proposes a somewhat unusual hybrid interpretation. Some of her gestures remind us of Bylsma – her trademark holding of the bow far from the frog being an obvious trait. But she doesn’t go as far as the Dutch visionary, and instead makes her own choices and propositions.

The most noticeable and possibly controversial decision she makes has to do with the bowings, at times interestingly peculiar and at times slightly hampering of the natural flow of the music. The same ambivalence applies to the flexibility in the rhythm, uncovering yet new ways of understanding this music on occasions while overstepping the whimsical line on others. Still, there is much enjoyment to be had in hearing these familiar notes sounding slightly differently, like a language spoken with an unusual accent. 

Judging by the packed hall, Natalia Gutman has not lost any appeal and continues to lure audiences to flock to listen to her. On this occasion, she offered three of the Suites – No.3, No.2 and No.4, in that order, and with No.4 replacing the originally programmed No.6. That left the suites she played in a rather strange order, albeit one that worked well for a live audience, with the brilliance of C major opening the night, leading onto the solemn D minor and back again in the world of sieved light that is E flat major.

Gutman’s cello is an instrument of whispers and reflection. This worked very nicely in, for instance, the Sarabande of the first and, especially, the third Suite. Her grave air – eyes closed for the entirely of the concert – were less suitable in the Preludes and other less contemplative, more dance-like movements, which would have benefitted from an increased sense of enjoyment.  

There was much to reflect upon and cherish from the first half of the concert though. Her bold staccato was lifting and her multiple stops were opulent. By the time she got to the D minor Suite, she had built up a sense of sonority rich in overtones. D minor is certainly a tonality she feels at ease with, and it showed.

But then something inexplicable happened. It started in the second Minuet of the D minor Suite. Gutman had a memory blip – she played the whole concert without a score – and could not remember what came next. It only lasted a fraction of a second and she got back on track, but it was the first sign of a crack that would only widen in the second part. Whether it was the last-minute change that made her feel uncomfortable or any other reason, the last Suite was hard to listen to. The fingers hesitated, the memory blips persisted and the cellist lost her beautiful concentration of the first part. Or rather, too much of it went to trying to get the notes right rather than bringing the music to life. Every musician has good and bad evenings. This wasn’t Gutman’s best moment.

Not that any of this seemed to matter to an audience ready to applaud enough for an encore. Gutman came back to Bach one more time and played the two Minuets from the Suite no. 1 in G major, which brought some relief after the previous struggles.