Malov Plays Bach on the “Shoulder Cello”

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BACH: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6 / Sergey Malov, cel da spalla / Solo Musica SM 343

Just when you think you’ve heard everything, here comes an entirely new take on the Bach Cello Suites.

Russian cellist Sergey Malov gives us here the six suites complete as played on the “violincello da spalla” or “shoulder cello,” an instrument that I hadn’t even known existed. But exist it does and exist it did even in Bach’s own time. It was invented sometime during the 18th century, yet the terms “violincello da spalla” or “viola da spalla” tend to appear in theoretical works rather than as instrumental designations from composers (pace Wikipedia). One use of the instrument was for violinists who wanted to play a ground bass but weren’t comfortable with a large cello played in a sitting position. Another was for “strolling musicians,” generally at the courts of Dukes and Princes. A third was for use in Bach cantatas where he specified the use of a “violincello piccolo.” In these scores, Bach used a variety of clefs to signify the wide range of this instrument, given the fact that the cello da spalla has five strings rather than four and thus can more easily produce a wider note range. Wikipedia also suggests that the Cello Suite No. 6, in particular, was designed to be played on this instrument.

Malov always felt that the intimate feeling of the Bach Cello Suites sounded too heavy on a standard cello, but had no idea of the cello da spalla until he ran across a video recording of Dmitry Badiarov playing the “Allemande” of the second suite. Interestingly, Malov recalls his mother taking him to a violin maker when he was a child to make sure that he had an instrument he could handle. That violin-maker was Dmitry Badiarov.

Yet what the cello da spalla gains in note range and ease of flexibility, it lacks a bit in sonority. As you can see from the photograph, it is only about half as large as a regular cello, thus the richer, more booming sound of the cello’s low range is somewhat constricted. Moreover, the smaller size means that even the middle range is less full in tone, thus one will listen in vain for the kind of sound produced in these suites by Pablo Casals or Zuill Bailey. But in its place there is much greater control of the strings, since they are closer to the upper body of the player, and this is especially true of the fast passages, which absolutely fly on this instrument. For once, one can hear these movements as really being similar to the fast movements of the violin sonatas and partitas.

With such pinpoint control of the instrument, then, Malov is able to make all six suites fit onto one CD, an achievement that I, at least, have never seen from a conventional cellist. It would be easy to say that playing them at these rapid tempi “cheapen” the music, but such is not the case. On the contrary, the faster pace helps the listener hear the music as more “bound” and structured. In addition, the dance-like elements of certain movements (i.e., the “Menuet” and “Gigue” of the second suite) have a really lively feel to them, whereas one normally can’t imagine anyone dancing to these dance rhythms.

Do I miss the sensual quality of Bailey’s cello? Only in the slow movements where, alas, Malov insists on the historically wrong use of constant straight tone—but such is also the case with Tomás Cotik’s splendid recording of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas. By and large, the music gains not only sprightliness but also intimacy when played this way. Listen, for instance, to the Prelude of the Suite No. 3, and the way in which Malov articulates each note and binds each phrase. With the rhythmic accents so sharply defined, the music bounces along at an excellent pace—clearly not too fast despite the quicker tempo—and in fact makes the ensuing “Allemande” sound all the more natural in context.

In short, Malov’s performances of these suites are actually enjoyable to listen to whereas most cellists, however good, have dull spots in their performances. I know of only one exception, an unfortunately little-known recording on the Town Hall label by Yehuda Hanani, whose lively phrasing and rhythmic emphasis, though slightly different from Malov’s, are quite similar using a standard cello.

As in the case of Cotik’s Violin Sonatas & Partitas, the more I listened to this recording the more I was convinced that, regardless of the instrument being used, Malov was on the right track musically. Partly because of the “reverent” approach taken to Bach in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, we became so used to “heavy” performances of his music that the few light and brisk ones were often dismissed as being “shallow,” but now we can listen to the Brandenburg Concerti conducted by Anthony Bernard in the late 1920s or the set conducted by Karl Richter in 1967 as being “on target” when compared to others of the same vintage, just as we can now hear Wanda Landowska’s 1930s recordings of the Goldberg Variations and the Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue as almost sounding contemporary except for the constricted 78-rpm sound quality. When Sigiswald Kuijken became the very first to record the Bach violin works using a Baroque bow and holding the instrument against his shoulder rather than tightly under his chin, I predicted that this style would become the norm for future performances of these works, and I was right. There are a lot of things I don’t know, but music isn’t one of them. For better or worse, music I know very well, perhaps too well to put up with constant straight tone!

It may take you a few minutes to adjust your ears to the leaner, drier, “smaller” sound of the cello da spalla, but once you do I think you’ll find it quite engaging. It’s somewhat analogous to the way we adapted our ears away from such huge-voiced Mozart tenors as Leo Slezak, Helge Roswaenge and Jan Peerce to such lighter voices as Heddle Nash, Peter Schreier and Werner Hollweg. Lighter voice production helps breath support and agility, and such is the case here.

This is not only an excellent recording in and of itself, then, but one that may very well set a standard that will be used in the future by other Bach cellists.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Malov Plays Bach on the “Shoulder Cello”

  1. Susan Merdinger says:

    This is a wonderful, well-researched, beautifully written and informative review! I really enjoyed learning about something “new” to me- in this case the instrument- but historical! Glad to subscribe to your music review blog, Lynn! Susan

    On Sat, Apr 25, 2020 at 10:58 AM THE ART MUSIC LOUNGE wrote:

    > The Art Music Lounge posted: ” BACH: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6 / Sergey Malov, > cel da spalla / Solo Musica SM 343 Just when you think you’ve heard > everything, here comes an entirely new take on the Bach Cello Suites. > Russian cellist Sergey Malov gives us here the six suites complete as p” >


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