CD review: Markku Luolajan-Mikkola’s new Bach

First published in the Guardian on 25 February, 2016

Bach: Sonatas & Partitas
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola (Linn)

Bach’s six solo Sonatas and Partitas might be sacrosanct for violinists — the instrument’s Himalayas, Enescu called them — but they’re regularly pinched by violists, lutenists, mandolinists and others. Why not baroque cellists? Phantasm’s Markku Luolajan-Mikkola sternly takes up the challenge on a 1700 instrument and answers his own question along the way: it’s tough going. Nimble passages (the Second Partita’s Gigue) and chunky double-stopped passages (the Second Sonata’s mighty Fugue) sound like hard graft, but Luolajan-Mikkola is nothing if not resolute and he seems to embrace the struggle as an expressive end in itself. His staunch approach to articulation is tricky to love (try the Prelude of the Third Partita), but payoff comes in the slow movements: Sarabandes sung low and husky, unadorned, flawed and beautiful. The recording was made in a medieval church on the south coast of Finland where the big reverb gives a warmth that’s occasionally missing in the playing.