Wednesday 1 October 2014

A new release from Vivat must surely place cellist Viola de Hoog amongst the great performers of Bach’s Cello Suites

With Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello one often hears performers struggling against the technical difficulties in an apparent exhibition of how clever they are in overcoming them. Other performers others sail, apparently effortlessly, over the virtuosic demands but seem to have little depth. Finally there is a small number of artists that provide effortless virtuosity with fine musicianship.

Amongst the latter category must surely be Viola de Hoog who, on her superb new release for Vivat shows musicianship of a high order.  



Such is the quality of the releases from Vivat that I continually find myself unable to fault them. This new Vivat release oozes quality, from the first rate colour photography on the three fold digipack and booklet, to the erudite notes by Professor Dr. Greta Haenen and, of course, to the most important element, the performances.

Viola de Hoog enjoys a distinguished international career mainly focused on historically-informed performance. For twenty of those years she also travelled the world as the cellist with the Dutch Schönberg Quartet. After studying at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam with Anner Bijlsma, she concentrated on performing chamber music, playing both modern and baroque cellos. In 1986 she was a finalist at the First International Concours for baroque cello in Paris. 

For many years Viola de Hoog was principal cello with Anima Eterna, a position she has also held with Tafelmusik Toronto, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, English Baroque Soloists, the Baroque Orchestra of the Netherlands Bach Society and Concerto Köln. She is currently principal cello with the Kölner Akademie, Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht and The King’s Consort.

Viola de Hoog has performed Bach’s six cello suites widely, including in Japan, Amsterdam and Paris. She teaches baroque cello and chamber music at the conservatories of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Bremen, where she was recently distinguished with the position of honorary professor. She plays a highly prized cello made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, Milano, c.1750, loaned from the collection of the Dutch Musical Instruments Foundation.

An interesting interview with Viola de Hoog can be seen on YouTube that also gives the opportunity to see the instruments played by her on this recording.

And so to the performances themselves. In the Prélude of Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007 Viola de Hoog brings a richness of tone and a complete naturalness as though the technical aspects are merely at the service of the music, just as they should be. She draws a beautifully rich, sonorous tone from her Guadagnini cello with finely transparent timbres from the upper register. Vibrato is minimal and pitch spot on. The Allemande has a natural free forward flow; phrasing is extremely fine as are her dynamics. Her tempo is spot on allowing the listener to revel in Bach’s creation.

There is a nicely light and nimble Courante with a lovely lower line at phrase ends and so many fine touches, a beautifully drawn slow Sarabande with lovely timbres and double stopped textures, such wonderfully characterful playing with every detail caught.

There is a lovely lift to the phrases in the Menuet I and II, once again, de Hoog’s technique is such that one completely forgets any difficulties and concentrates on Bach’s melodic invention.  The Gigue is rhythmically alive, full of beautifully drawn phrases

Viola de Hoog follows the first suite with the Suite No.4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 with more lovely deep, rich phrases in the Prélude that resonate under the upper line with this cellist drawing such varied colours and textures from her lovely instrument. There is a lovely fluency to the Allemande as she lithely weaves around the theme with stunning accuracy. The Courante brings more nimble playing, with de Hoog revelling in Bach’s every detail with fine textures and pointing up of phrases.

The long drawn phrases of the Sarabande reveal de Hoog’s fine tone and her ability to bring a variety of textures and colours from her cello as she slowly leads the music onward at a lovely pace. Bourrée I and II are beautifully done, again so lithe and crisply phrased, a real joy, before a very fine, fast flowing, beautifully phrased Gigue, never breathless, always finding details.

What terrific rich sonorous chords de Hoog produces in the opening of the Prélude to Suite No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011 leading seamlessly into the lighter, yet equally richly drawn, later passages. I love the way de Hoog phrases the Allemande, beautifully paced, it unfolds beautifully with more fine textures being drawn – and those lovely rich, lower notes. There is a fine spring to de Hoog’s lower notes in the Courante as they are interspersed within the overall musical line. She extracts every ounce of tone and texture.

There is another beautifully conceived Sarabande, rich in textures, beautifully phrased and paced and naturalness of phrasing in the Gavotte I and II where de Hoog provides a remarkable flow. There is a lovely, rhythmically sprung Gigue to conclude.

The second CD in this set opens with the Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009 where the Prélude has a lovely freedom and sweep with de Hoog displaying a complete lack of self-consciousness, so deeply does she seem to be involved in her music making. There is a lively, beautifully shaped Allemande again with a great natural flow and a brilliantly executed Courante that brings more fine textures.

The fine sonorities in the Sarabande reveal so much more of the music before the Bourrée I and II receives a finely shaped performance with terrific attention to dynamics and phrasing whilst always pushing ahead. Finally there is another fine Gigue, with Bach’s lovely dissonances and more, deep, rich textures.

Next is the Suite No.2 in D minor, BWV 1008 with a Prélude that opens with a thoughtful ruminating theme that gives de Hoog ample opportunity to revel in the wonderful textures before rising to the more passionate moments. The Allemande follows nicely as the cello weaves a slightly faster theme with much attention to details and sonorities. There is a free flowing Courante with superb little textures and double stopping, thrown off with such a naturalness and a Sarabande that is dark hued with beautifully blended chords as de Hoog slowly reveals the melody.

The Menuet I and II reveal more of de Hoog’s fine technique and care of sonorities as well as her fine phrasing and lovely sprung phrases. How she cuts into the strings to give bite to the textures in the Gigue, never harsh, but with real grit.

For the Suite No.6 in D major, BWV 1012 Viola de Hoog switches to a five string Bohemian cello c.1780. Contemporary accounts link Bach to the design of the viola pomposa, otherwise known as the violoncello piccolo or Bassetchen. This was a higher bass string instrument and seems to have been an adaptation that would overcome the problem of finding an instrument that is not too low (a cello) and not to high (violin) for accompanying certain lines in a flexible manner.

Bach apparently made use of the five string viola pomposa in his D major suite so the use of a five string cello is entirely appropriate. In the Prélude one can immediately hear the quite different sound of this cello, a lighter sound and more transparent. Nevertheless de Hoog’s still finds rich timbres and textures from this instrument, in fact remarkably so. There is a beautiful wrought Allemande with lovely textures, finely paced, with de Hoog’s wonderful flow, allowing the theme to flower.

In the Courante this cellist moulds a richer texture with the light and transparent sonorities that this instrument brings and showing Bach’s tremendous flow of invention. There are particular moments in the Sarabande when one can hear that this instrument is perfect for this suite. The string textures work so well as does de Hoog’s phrasing in this terrific movement. There is a terrific Gavotte I and II where de Hoog’s phrasing and subtle dynamics bring so much with, again, more fine sonorities. The Gigue is beautifully light and buoyant, bringing a real joy to conclude this fine set.

It is de Hoog’s wonderful tone, the lovely timbres she produces as well as her sheer musicality that make me want to return to these performances again and again. That is not something that can be said of many recordings of the Bach suites.

Surely this new recording must place Viola de Hoog amongst the great performers of these masterworks. Certainly for me they are my performances of choice.

She receives a first rate recording from De Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, Nettherlands produced by Robert King. In addition to the first rate notes by Professor Dr. Greta Haenen there is a short essay by Viola de Hoog and full details of the instruments, bows and strings. It seems almost churlish to mention that the Suite No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011 is shown as being in D minor but, given everything else, it hardly matters.


  1. "Lovely" is obviously the key word here. You use it 14 times.

  2. Wonderful review - I couldn’t agree with you more.