“The Tao of Bach” – BACH: Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello – Hekun Wu, c. – MSR

by | Nov 4, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

“The Tao of Bach” – BACH: Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello – Hekun Wu, c. – MSR 1385 (2 CDs), 148:47 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
I suppose it is not unusual for a Chinese artist to connect the oft-interpreted music of Bach with a Taoist idea (as stated in the notes): “One who does nothing; does everything”. Mr. Wu goes on to say “one need not strive to interpret the Suites, but simply to let it flow—and like water, the Suites represent that which is highest, making life unfold ‘into ten thousand things…’”
Well maybe.
Striving, or lacking to strive, is essentially an interpretative activity. Deciding not to interpret is itself an interpretative decision as it involves certain choices that will affect the music itself. You cannot get around it, especially with something as fluid and undesignated as the Cello Suites, which after all have no extent manuscript. Merely picking up a bow and drawing it across the strings involves interpretation, with the little hundreds of decisions as far as bow direction, placement, pressure, you name it—go. So the idea that you can simply “let it flow” just doesn’t work.
It reminds me of a conductor I knew years ago who was having a terrible time with the orchestra in a rehearsal of Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite. He told me afterward, “I thought I could just wind it up and let it go—boy was I wrong.” And I think because of the linear nature of much of Bach’s music, and especially the way much of it is played today, many feel the same way. But Bach would have been aghast at this idea, and I have no doubt that if he had sat beside Mr. Wu when recording this disc he would have had a million ideas as to how the music should go.
That being said, I can say that Wu is very successful in removing what I would call not interpretation, but personality from this recording. It is played in a manner that bespeaks a neutral, hands-off policy that some might find attractive. Whether this means that the music is “speaking for itself” I am not sure; well, yes I am—that is impossible, as we are dealing with an interpretative art. But what is passing here as a rather laid back, calmly unemotional, and well-played execution of this music is in fact a definitive choice made by Wu, who is trying to deliberately link this type of playing to the underlying natural order of the universe, one of many definitions of Tao, which means different things to different cultures even within Chinese philosophy and religion. As he states in the notes when referring to these suites, “the music, like flowing water, does not force itself upon the player and the audience, but rather unfolds in a most organic, life-affirming, and natural way.”
Fair enough; I am not going to quibble with Wu, who was spent 30 years playing and studying this music. But I don’t really understand why this particular music should receive this treatment any more than the Rite of Spring. Then again, maybe Wu believes that it should.
His sound is warm and cultured, and one cannot fault the playing in any way—many will probably like this, but I am not sure that the interpretative philosophy means a hill of beans in the long run, and a lack of liner notes explaining all of this in this recording would have worked as well to the general listener. For me, I need more personality and emotional involvement in this music—many others do not.
—Steven Ritter

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