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Willamette University

Bach Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Hekun Wu, cello

Sound clips available on Amazon or MSR Classics.


Fanfare ~ July/August 2011
Jerry Dubins

In Wu’s readings we have the best modern-instrument performances to come my way since I reviewed Jean-Guihen Queyras’s Harmonia Mundi recording in 31:4. To begin with, Wu captures the essence of the dance in every one of the movements. He’s light on the bow and his phrasing traces arcs and pirouettes of the dancer in motion. In a word, his playing is airborne.

Second, and closely related to the first, are tempos that move along effortlessly but never too fast, almost gliding in courantes, menuettos, gavottes, boureés, and gigues, and that never drag in sarabandes, always mindful of the fact that true dances are never so fast or so slow that the dancer is thrown off balance. And with moderation in tempo comes regularity of rhythmic pulse and pointing, which Wu manages beautifully.

Third is a recording that provides plenty of space for the cello’s tone to resonate fully while still managing to keep a respectful distance so that we’re not treated to a sandpaper symphony.

Wu’s performances of the suites, and this recording of them, are so far superior to anything I’ve heard since Queyras that I have no hesitation in according this release a very strong recommendation.

American Record Guide ~ July/August 2011
D. Moore

Hekun Wu of China uses the image of flowing water to represent his image of Bach's music.  The results are relaxed and musical... His attention to detail in choosing notes is commendable.  Suite 5 is tuned down and another good reading.  The lyricism of these performances is attractive.

Turok's Choice No. 232 ~ May 2011

He plays [the Suites] smoothly technically... he plays lyrically...

Audio Video Society of Atlanta ~ March/April, 2011
Phil's Classical Reviews, Phil Muse
The Tao of Bach
Unaccompanied Suites 1-6
Hekun Wu, cellist
MSR Classics

Shanghai native Hekun Wu, much in demand over the past 30 years as cellist and conductor and now professor of music at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, chose the title for this 2-CD set, “The Tao of Bach,” with great care. Water, in the view of the Tao Te Ching, epitomizes the greatest good because it flows smoothly and ceaselessly in low places, does not contend with anything for eminence, and gives birth to “ten thousand things.” To the Taoist, water represents the virtue of passivity, of “going with the flow,” rather than actively striving in a conscious or presumptive manner.

To say that Wu, or any other cellist, has mastered the virtue of flowing water when the subject is J. S. Bach’s Six Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012, would be grossly misleading. There was a lot to be overcome by dint of hard work and study over a number of years in realizing, as Wu terms it, Bach’s “sound world of melody, harmony, and counterpoint on just four strings.” This is particularly true in Suite No. 5 in C Minor, where Bach indicates the use of scordatura, the deliberate “mistuning” (or rather, cross-tuning) of the open strings in order to make it possible to negotiate otherwise impossible note sequences. As Wu explains it, this involves learning a whole vocabulary of “slurs,” which are articulations that allow notes to be played smoothly on one bow, an essential part of the Baroque style. Wu does this as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it in all these suites, not just in No. 5. In the Courante of No. 4, for example, it allows him to move sensationally between sections.

The other thing you notice about Wu’s performances, in addition to his expressive phrasing but obviously related to it, is the strong characterization he gives to each and every one of the thirty-six movements in these six suites. You notice this immediately in the distinct character of individual Preludes. The Prelude to Suite No. 1 in G Major, for instance, with its jaunty profusion of arpeggiated chords, is notably extroverted in mood, while No. 4 in E-flat Major is technically demanding, labored and passionately struggling for expression. No. 5 is a stately French ouverture, working up to an impressive fugue at the conclusion. Bach’s Allemandes are well characterized also. No. 3 in C Major is notably upbeat, while Suites 4 and 5 are more dramatically involved than we should rightly expect of a staid old German dance. And Wu does a splendid job in the dance movements per se of the suites, always found as movement 5 and consisting of pairs of Minuets, Boureés or Gavottes, depending on the individual suite, so that when we return to Boureé I from Boureé II, for example, we feel we are getting re-acquainted with an old friend that has been ever so slightly influenced by the encounter with its “double.”

Add into the mix the very expressive nature that Wu reveals in all of Bach’s Sarabandes, some of them
serenely beautiful and others darkly meditative, and you have as satisfying a recording of the Six Cello
Suites, which the artist rightly describes as the canon of the cellist’s repertoire, as I’ve ever heard. Does that mean that it’s a definitive account? Well actually, no. Many audiophiles would be surprised to know that there is no such thing as a “definitive” account of any serious work of music. As Wu expresses it, “I have never been totally satisfied with my performances of the Suites; every time, I perform them, there is always something new to discover.” One’s approach continues to evolve. All Wu, or any other serious musical artist, can say is that at this point in his intellectual and spiritual journey through the world of music, this is how he understood it and he tried to convey it to us to the best of his ability. Actually, that’s saying a lot!

Songs and Dances from Distant Lands
Hekun Wu, cello ~ Elise Yun, piano

[1] Granados-Cassado (1867-1916): Intermezzo from Goyescas

[2] Chopin (1810-1849) Gendron/Franaix version - Schott edition
Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3

[3-4] Faur(1845-1924):

[5] Beethoven (1770-1827): Seven Variations on a theme from The Magic Flute, WoO 46

[6] Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Songs without Words, Op. 109

[7-10] Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977): Songs and Dances, Op. 84

[11] He Luting (1903-1999): Berceuse

[12] Arlene Zallman (1934-2006) Sei la terra che aspetta ("You are the waiting earth")

[13] Paganini (1782-1840) - arr. Gendron, Schott edition
Variations on one string on a theme of Rossini

Recorded: July 30-31, 2001 at The Sonic Temple in Roslindale, MA

Producers: Joel Gordon & P. George Mathew

Sound Engineer: Joel Gordon ~ Assistant Engineer: Matthew Packwood

Distributor: CRC (This recording is no longer available, but you are welcome to download it from this site)