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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Six Suites for Double Bass

Mark Bernat, bass
Recorded by Leszek Wojcik
MAD Recordings, Charlottesville, Virginia
3 CD set, no catalog number
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The music of Bach has been arranged and transcribed for countless instruments and ensembles, first by the composer and then by many others through the years. The six suites originally written for solo violoncello, BWV 1007-1012, have been recorded in versions for viola, lute, guitar, flute, marimba, flute, piano, harpsichord, violincello piccolo,… and that's just what is more-or-less currently in print. Mark Bernat has recently made and published an arrangement for double bass and has recorded it on his own label. It is one of at least two recordings of these works on this instrument; the other is by Michael Cameron on Zuma Records.

The sound of Bach on this instrument is distinctive and grand and Bernat makes the most of this resource, exploring a wide range of colors. He has also got, for the most part, a good sense of the organisation of each piece. The phrasing and tempos are generally what I'm used to from the cello suites although there are a number of movements that are taken very slowly indeed. This does not appear to be for technical reasons as some of the dance movements are quite fast and cleanly played. But the sixth suite runs over half an hour in this recording and seems to be taken at a very cautious pace, as do other scattered movements.

On first hearing Bernat's intonation was problematic. There are places, especially in the some of the faster passages and in passing notes in mid-phrase, where my ear tells me that a note was not hit precisely on pitch. In a few cases notes are missed entirely. This gives the impression of a performance and not an edited studio session. And it sounds better the second time around. I remember that Casals was pretty cavalier about pitch in his recordings of these works. Casals would bend notes for effect, but here it seems to be inaccuracy, and not deliberate. There are huge technical as well as interpretive challenges here and Bernat is generally successful in dealing with the latter. He certainly manages to make the music sound at home on this instrument – no mean feat.

The recording quality is fine, clear with good presence. The instrument appears close up with a little ambiance behind it.

Overall, this is an interesting and valuable release. It can be recommended to any student or connoisseur of the double bass. It presents yet another facet of these wonderful suites.

Copyright © 1997, Paul Geffen