Recording of November 2021: J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello

J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Vols. 1 and 2
Zuill Bailey, cello
Octave Records OCT-0008 (Multiple formats; auditioned as DSD64). 2021. Five/Four Productions, Ltd.: Thomas C. Moore, prod.; Robert Friedrich, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Why is Stereophile publishing its fourth review (at least) in three years of a recording of Bach's Six Cello Suites? Partly it's because the suites, which were composed ca 1720 but remained in obscurity until a young Pablo Casals rediscovered them in a secondhand sheet music store in Barcelona in 1890, contain some of the most joyous, moving, and profound music in the Western classical music canon. It's also because these two volumes, which present Grammy Award–winning cellist Zuill Bailey's second recorded exploration of the suites (the first was on Telarc more than two decades ago), abound in astoundingly beautiful musicianship illumined by fresh insights and superb engineering.

Bailey offers far more sensitive and nuanced playing than he did on his first effort. Note, for example, how the gentleness and grace that surface in the opening Prelude of the beloved first suite are balanced by a willingness to let go and dance tastefully in the swinging Courante. This suite takes but four seconds longer than the version on Yo-Yo Ma's second recording, but the playing seems more relaxed and welcoming.

Individual touches abound. In places where Bailey wishes to indicate the end of a phrase, he pauses occasionally as if participating in a courtly dance.

In the Prelude to the Third Suite, he repeatedly sounds a resonant low note while playing an ever-developing set of arpeggios, all while flawlessly swelling and diminishing volume and keeping a firm hold on pitch. The Prelude to the final suite ends with impossibly fast strings of notes that he sounds more perfectly than many other cellists. His articulation remains formidable in the succeeding Courante.

Listen to the sighs and haunting sadness of the Fifth Suite's burdened Sarabande. The first of the suite's two Gavottes seems to defiantly declare, "We will endure and dance, no matter what." That defiance seems rewarded in the final suite, which in Bailey's hands begins with a song of victory.

Bailey's two volumes are the first classical DSD-native, two-channel, "immersive audio" recordings from Octave Records, PS Audio's record label. As with all Octave releases, PS Audio covers all expenses, gives musicians 25%–30% of every sale and distributes physical product and downloads only through its Octave Records website—no streaming. Bailey's two volumes are available either as two Gold SACDs or in several download formats, including native DSD64 and PCM from 24/192 down to 24/44.1.

Gus Skinas, the DSD pioneer and mastering engineer whose Super Audio Center now resides in PS Audio's Boulder, Colorado, facility, was the first to suggest that Octave record Bailey playing the suites. Skinas grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, with parents who were good friends with cellist János Starker.

The recording was set down by recording engineer Robert Friedrich and producer Thomas (Thom) Moore, who together comprise Five/Four productions. Moore, who worked on some of the great Telarc classical recordings, has produced so many of Bailey's recordings over the decades that they've become like brothers. "Zuill and I basically grew up together in his recording sphere," Moore explained by telephone. "He's a no-holds-barred player who constantly goes for it and attacks things with amazing passion. He's not the kind of person I have to keep pushing to explore the boundaries; he just does it. It's so refreshing. I'd much rather be pulling someone back from the edge of a cliff than pushing him forward, and he trusts me to tell him when he needs to go further or pull back."

Recorded during the pandemic, when only five people were allowed inside the building at a time, the recording finds Bailey 100% present. The sound and energy keep pulling you in deeper; Ma and Rostropovich's recordings sound distant and a bit gray by comparison. Friedrich gets close to Bailey's prized "rosette" Matteo Goffriller cello, capturing its extraordinary range of colors and exceptionally robust and resonant low range.

The cello, which formerly was owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet, was made in 1693, so it could conceivably have played Bach's music during his lifetime. The sense of occasion is palpable, the gravity of the playing complemented by the tonal weight and richness that the recording captures so well. You'll be hard-pressed to find another recording that profiles a great instrument and excellent artist in such a quiet environment with so much color and dynamic contrast.—Jason Victor Serinus

Anton's picture

Hey, keep bringing them on! They are a fun and easy recording for comparing the different versions to each other, as well. Good Hi Fi fun and great music! Win win!

Just call those suites the Musical Fidelity of music reviews! Did they make a Bach Solo Cello Suites watch yet? (That is a Listening #51, March, 2007 joke, nothing negative inferred or implied.)

I'm gonna go buy this!


Thread drift, in rock, we call these cover versions, in classical-land, they are interpretations. I find that interesting.

cgh's picture

There's a new book by Isserlis on the suites. You can get now if in UK or US (Kindle); alas I am waiting for the hardcover here in the US.

I play many of the cello suites on classical guitar (and most of the Lute Suites) and, together, they form a rabbit hole that no player can escape from. There's a bunch of rules about how to play Bach, and Baroque more generally. As such, and unfortunately, only breaking the rules some can add to the interpretations after so many great, great recordings. Casals, Rostropovich, Queyras, Starker, Du Pre, ..., even Ma's more recent. Much more than just dynamics and rubato.

Not wild about the distribution model over at PS Audio. Probably more me being inflexible than having a good reason but a little annoyed at the lack of convergence ... I am the subset that would rather be able to stream lossless or have the vinyl.

Kal Rubinson's picture

In what way is this "immersive audio?" I see no such reference in my copy.

Charles E Flynn's picture

At, use the Zuill Bailey Video tab, and be sure to use the full screen option.

There are also 38 brief sound samples.

pbarach's picture

The producer of this set, Thomas Moore, died recently of a brain tumor after being ill for a week. He, Friedrich, and Michael Bishop were the principals of Five/Four Productions. Bishop died a few months ago from an unspecified accident at home.

cgh's picture

That is just horrible. So strange and tragic given they were relatively young and it was all so sudden. I see his affiliation at Cleveland and they are maybe having a concert in memorial.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

will appear in print in a future Industry Update. He died right as this review was reaching subscribers.

pbarach's picture

Thanks, JVS. A memorial concert is being planned for December in Cleveland. Details will appear here:

Awsmone0's picture

We do not know when the cello suites were composed other than most likely when he was at Cothen and changed to secular instrumental works
Given the variety of the cello suites it is improbably they were all composed at the same time
Of course if you don’t have a five string cello you lose some intent with the 6th.
As there are no musical markings in the surviving manuscripts tempi etc are open to interpretation other than the dance suites styles from the period, plus I like like gut strings and lower pitch of the period