MUSIC / Perfect modesty: Ralph Kirshbaum - Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
No matter how you play the Bach Cello Suites, you are certain to offend someone. The Baroque cello has made tentative inroads, but it is a long way from dominating the picture, as period instruments do in orchestral and choral Bach. So what one often hears is some sort of compromise: 'period' insights adapted to the modern instrument - fascinating to some; dust and ashes to both the purist and the romantic traditionalist. The latter still holds his (it's usually his) ground; you can still find performances in which a simple, 20-bar sarabande is turned into something approaching a Bruckner adagio; but to ears educated to appreciate that the sarabande is in fact a dance, the results can be hideous.

In his two Wigmore Hall recitals, Ralph Kirshbaum avoided close identification with either of these types. All his sarabandes were on the slow side, but there was nothing approaching the expansive, expressively hypercharged soliloquies of, say, Kisha Maisky. The Sarabande of the C minor Suite took its time, and yet the tone was veiled, the expression restrained, and at the back of it there was at least the ghost of a dance. And equivalent movements in some of the other suites were persuasive - particularly the D minor - though a couple of light-footed quaver figures in the Sarabande of the C major Suite suggested a slow action replay rather than the real thing.

Otherwise the balance between freedom and the dance beat was nicely judged. Leaping figures in the Allemande from the C major Suite might have been thrown off with more panache, but it was a pleasure to hear the Prelude of the G major flowing forward so naturally, neatly dodging both distortive rubato and sewing-machine regularity. The same could be said about the Prelude to the B flat major Suite, a movement whose first half can all too easily seem like a cello exercise. Kirshbaum's playing was loving without being lingering and, as so often in these two concerts, there was plenty of subtle variation in tone-colour.

Kirshbaum took the score all pretty much as written, with a few discreet ornaments here and there (including one lovely turn in the second Gavotte of the D major). He could perhaps have found a more imaginative reading at the five sustained triple-stopped chords at the end of the Prelude to the D minor Suite - played simply as five chords they sound awfully bald. Otherwise the restraint was welcome - especially from a cellist who has the ability to make a held note or a chord a thing of beauty in its own right.

The arrangement of the two programmes made sense: having the odd-numbered suites on Saturday, the even on Tuesday, meant that one got pairs of minuets, bourrees and gavottes and one minor-key work in each programme.

It also ensured a suitably brilliant finale. For Tortelier, the D major Suite - written for a cello with five strings - was like a cathedral. Kirshbaum avoided religiosity - thank God - but his performance was in its own way awe- inspiring, not least because it came at the end of a demanding sequence. A couple of memory lapses in the first Gavotte apart, it was stylish and authoritative right the way through. Even the difficult multiple-stopping of the Sarabande (difficult because it isn't meant to draw attention to itself - the singing line is what matters) sounded unforced, fluent even. It is easy to see why these Suites attract a showman; but how much more appealing they can be when the performer's ego doesn't hog the spotlight - that was Kirshbaum's lasting message.

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