Johann Sebastian BACH: Six cello suites – Richard Narroway, cello — Sono Luminus SLE-70010, 1:16:26, (9/24/17) ****

Richard Narroway would not be the first young cellist to take-on the suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach early in their professional career. Immediately in my mind I think of a young Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded the suites for the first time in 1984 for CBS Masterworks (Sony). While Narroway is not as well-established as Ma, there’s little doubt he has a promising career ahead of him either as a performer, pedagogue, or both, as evidenced by his YouTube videos.

Narroway approaches the suites on one hand in a very clean, clear, and measured way, blurring the lines between a period approach and a more romantic one. His use of vibrato is never excessive and is used to warm a note, or to provide an organic lift. This approach is careful in one respect, aiming to not offend the listener with anything getting in the way of Bach’s music. Narroway’s training wears well: his intonation is impeccable throughout and his articulation is always clear. The effect is not unlike his appearance: young and clean shaven.

Yet Narroway does inflect some personality in the suites as well.

In the third suite, Narroway tickles the seasoned listener with some novelties. Both in the two bourées and in the gigue, Narroway introduces ornaments that complement the music in an historically-appropriate way. They’ve been considered and are made in good taste.

The suite that challenged me was the sixth. Many believe that the sixth suite was written for another instrument, a five-stringed cello that is better suited to address the suite’s higher range. Narroway’s reading of the two gavottes for me needed a little more soul and push. His tempo with the concluding gigue, too, suffered by the chosen tempo, as it served to highlight the higher range of the piece. To his credit, Narroway consistently plays with clean articulation and true intonation, the latter being the curse of this piece when played upon a conventional, four-stringed cello.

Comparing the sixth with the second suite, Narroway’s instrument is much more comfortable sounding in its lower registers. Narroway does an interesting thing in the second suite’s courante: he pulls the double stops  in the middle of the phrases long—breaking up the regular pulse of the dance. He would make it difficult for dancers, but musically speaking, I like the effect. His second menuet in this suite seems to almost celebrate its baroqueness in his articulation of the ornaments. Narroway’s performance of the second suite’s gigue is slower than I’m used to, but is still full of musical interest: his intelligent shaping of the phrases with dynamic nuance sounds deliberate. Musically, his reading works. He plays even more with the gigue in the first suite on the repeats. The change in notes is like a wink at us, blessing the music with his own style.

My favorite dance in Narroway’s Bach is the courante from the fifth suite.  He sounds especially confident throughout this suite. I picture him deftly moving his bow as a master artist might move his brush, full of oil paint across a canvas. The confidence emerges again in the gavottes and concluding gigue.

I believe Richard Narroway has proven himself as an accomplished musician with his debut recording, featuring Bach’s suites for solo cello. His approach is contemporary, I believe, attempting to present the music in a clear and concise way, bridging the divide between the more romantic style of the mid-twentieth century with a historically-informed approach that today is as amply found in the catalogs of recordings. This release, I believe, won’t offend anyone. And as much as I am used to hearing a more seasoned cellist present their take on this music, after decades of living with these courantes, allemandes, and preludes, Narroway in his youth has succeeded at revealing to us some of his own personality in this debut recording. With his solid technique, he could well be on his way to continuing to evolve his performance and own personal self discovery in the decades to come.

—Sebastian Herrera