Published February 22, 2016

Matt Haimovitz is a gifted cellist, whose restless searching for different modes of communication and expression on the instrument has led him in many interesting directions. In his second time recording the Bach Suites (his first was 15 years ago), he has found religion — baroque religion. He set his instrument up with gut strings, tuned it down a half step, acquired a baroque bow and threw out all his modern editions, studying only a copy of the work by Bach’s wife (no holograph manuscript survives). He sounds like any number of baroque players, with all the value judgments that implies.

For me, these performances invoke the least appealing aspects of early-music string playing — halting phrasing, frequent blurring and crunching of fast passages, and swells on pretty much every long note. Objective beauty is certainly possible with a baroque setup. But the aesthetic of this style is to turn music as much as possible into actual speech, with an unsteady “improvisatory” pace, occasional mumbling, sudden bursts of thought, sighs, etc. This is temporarily interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. The basic verities of musical expression — pulse, rhythm, melody, harmony and purity of sound — belong to no school or period, and a performer disrupts them (for whatever imagined historical justification) at his peril.

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