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Since reviewing Truls Mørk’s version of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites in 29:5, no fewer than six more accounts have crossed my desk. In chronological order, they were Jean-Guihen Queyras (31:4), Sara Sant’Ambrogio (33:3), Luigi Piovano (34:5), Hekun Wu (34:6), Tanya Tomkins (35:1), and Richard Tuncliffe (36:1). Some of the cellists used conventional cellos, others period instruments. All but two, however, had one thing in common: They were uniformly awful, though each in its own way, ranging from barely tolerable to downright execrable. The one I kept coming back to as my preferred and strongly recommended set throughout those reviews was the first on this list, the one by Jean-Guihen Queyras, with Hekun Wu being a close runner-up. Both, by the way, performed the suites on cellos in modern configuration. 


Bach’s six cello suites are like a Siren’s call to cellists of all persuasions, luring many of them to ruin. And the thing is there’s no reason for it. Was it a singular achievement for Bach to write such technically challenging works for an instrument that was relatively new at the time, and a melody instrument to boot, one that takes even more kindly to intensive double-stopping than the violin? Yes. But are the cello suites comparable on levels of musical scope and intellectual depth to the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas? Not even close. There are no massive fugues in the cello suites and nothing that approaches the dimensions of the D-Minor Violin Partita’s Chaconne. The cello suites are exactly what their title tells us they are—six sets of relatively short, stylized baroque dances. Yet for cellists—and for some listeners, I think—they’ve taken on an import that may be beyond their actual significance in Bach’s output, virtually becoming every cellist’s initiation rite. 


So, how does the young Venezuelan cellist, Carmine Miranda (b. 1988), fare in his initiation into cellodom’s manhood? Well, first a few words about this young artist, who is likely unknown to readers, as this is his recording debut; he was 22 when he recorded the Bach suites for Centaur in 2011–12. Miranda’s early training took place in his native country, where he studied at the Carabobo State Music Conservatory, then in the Latin-American Academy of Violoncello, and finally at the Simon Bolivar Conservatory of Music (the institution that spawned the famous “El Sistema”). Miranda then traveled to the States to study with Ross Harbaugh at the University of Miami, followed by further coaching under Yehuda Hanani at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music where Miranda obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is a candidate for a doctorate. 


In the U.S., he has performed at Carnegie Hall, Bowdoin Music Festival, the Bach Annalia Festival in Cincinnati, the Young People’s Festival in Chatham, N.Y., and is on the artist’s roster for the Close Encounters with Music Series in Great Barrington, N.Y., both under the direction of Yehuda Hanani and others. 


Among Miranda’s awards are first prize at the 2005 Alhambra Music Competition, the National Prize for best soloist from the FMEA (Florida Music Educators Association), and the 2008–09 University of Cincinnati Cello Competition. He has collaborated with recognized international artists such as Yehuda Hanani, Awadagin Pratt, Rodolfo Saglimbeni and performed as a soloist with several chamber ensembles and orchestras, recently including the Caracas Municipal Symphony Orchestra. He is also the founder and member of the Troika Piano Trio comprised of violinist Joshua Ulrich and pianist Assaf Sommer. 


Miranda, who authored his own album note, makes no mention of the instrument(s) he uses for these performances, how he handles the scordatura tuning of the Fifth Suite—does he retune his cello according to the original manuscript or use the modern standard-tuning edition?—or what he does to accommodate the Sixth Suite, believed to have been originally written for a five-string violoncello piccolo. His note speaks only of his personal impressions of, and responses to, the emotional and spiritual character and quality of each of the pieces. At one point, in fact, I was quite taken aback to read, “Interpretation of the suites has nothing to do with what is correct, accurate, and historical, but it rather has to do with going deep within the soul of the writing…” That raised a red flag for me, not to mention an eyebrow. I couldn’t help but think to myself that only the immodesty of youth could be so callow and cavalier with respect to the years of serious musicological research that have attempted to ascertain what is “correct, accurate, and historical,” and to the many veteran cellists who have spent more years studying these works than Miranda has been alive. But the proof, as they say, is in the hearing. And so I decided not to allow my annoyance with Miranda’s words to influence my judgment of his playing. 


Instantly, from the very first bar of the G-Major Suite, the cellist that came to mind was Pablo Casals, a comparison that elicits no higher compliment. In my above-mentioned review of Tanya Tomkins’s Bach suites, I noted how slow and super-romanticized her readings were; she takes 3:16 for the opening Prelude, a full half-minute longer than Jacqueline du Pré, who, at 2:35, is hardly fast. So, I went back to Casals’s 1950s recording and found that he dispatched the Prelude in two minutes flat and without any rhythmic distensions or distortions. What about Carmine Miranda? 2:09. I don’t know if Miranda studied Casals’s recordings, but if he didn’t, it’s truly uncanny how closely he channels both the letter and the spirit of the great cellist’s example. 


It’s really difficult to express in words the beauty of Miranda’s performances. His cello is a modern instrument, or at least one updated with modern fittings and tuned to modern pitch, but the tone it emits is lighter in weight than that which we often hear in versions played on modern cellos. Of course, much of that can be attributed to Miranda’s bowing. He doesn’t dig into the strings to produce guttural sounds. The tone is clean and clear and intonation perfect. But one expects more than technical proficiency, dexterity, and finesse; and more—much more than that—is what one gets from Miranda’s readings. 


Alluded to above is the fact that these are suites of dances, and time and again, in extolling the virtues of Jean-Guihen Queyras’s performances, I’ve remarked on the way in which he manages to capture the essence of each dance step. Miranda, it seems to me, goes one step further (no pun intended). He hears, and allows us to hear, the historical roots of each dance and whence it comes, which is pretty funny when you try to square that with his comment that interpretation of the suites has nothing to do with the historical. Yet listen to Miranda’s courantes, and you will hear not just rapid tempos, but the very definition of the Renaissance dance as described by Thoinot Arbeau, the 16th-century French theorist who tells us that the courante was danced with fast running and jumping steps. If Miranda didn’t learn this from reading music history, he knows it intuitively, for it’s not just his accelerated tempos but the effect of rhythmic arrest you would observe in a dance that involved running forward several steps, then making a sudden jump, hop, or jerk to stop short the forward motion. In Miranda’s hands, the suites don’t just sound dance-like, as in stylized baroque refinements, they sound like actual Renaissance dances. 


Likewise, Miranda’s sarabandes are played with the stately gravitas that would have been à la mode for a processional court dance in 17th-century France. Interestingly, the sarabande had its origins as a fairly fast dance a century earlier and quite likely in Mexico or Central America. When Spanish colonists brought the dance back to Spain with them, it was banned in 1583 for being obscene. It wasn’t until the sarabande made its way to Italy and then France that it became the slow, triple-meter dance that was widely adopted into the baroque suite. 


I’ve never heard Bach’s cello suites played in quite this way, and while I wouldn’t want to be without the versions by Queyras, Hekun Wu, Casals, and János Starker, Carmine Miranda’s will not only join them, it will stand out as perhaps the most original and imaginative interpretations of the suites I’ve heard. 


Centaur’s recording, too, is outstanding, capturing Miranda’s cello fairly close up but with sufficient air around it to allow for a natural sounding bloom, yet without any annoying echo effect. An album note states that the recording was made without any editing. This is a definite buy recommendation for both connoisseurs of Bach’s cello suites and those who appreciate cello playing at its best. I’d have to say that Carmine Miranda has passed his initiation with flying colors. Welcome to the ranks of the world class players. - Jerry Dubins 


This article originally appeared in Issue 36:5 (May/June 2013) of Fanfare Magazine.

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