My Ongoing Obsession with the Bach Cello Suites

SiblinAt the tail end of 2014 I came across a book I had been previously been unaware of at a library liquidation sale and bought it for less than the price of a cup of coffee. That the book aroused my curiosity was not surprising, given my history with such things, but the way in which it has shaped my new year already has been quite astounding. The book is entitled The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece and is the first full-length book by a writer named Eric Siblin. It piqued my interest for three reasons, the first being that Bach has always been my go-to musical palette cleanser, the second that the six Suites for solo cello are the holy grail for any cellist, myself included, and the last that the work is also an exploration of Pablo Casals, the father of modern cello technique, about whom I knew very little.

The book provided a wonderful exposition on the life of J.S. Bach and how the pablo-casals-08Suites, originally composed on ancient dance forms, fitted into his vast body of music. One gets a clear sense of the great Lutheran composer, particularly how he had to struggle in menial positions with backward church administrators, or juggle positions with enthusiastic benefactors and those less so. It is the portrait of a passionate man who, although deeply religious, had an exacting scientific mind when it came to the properties and possibilities of harmony and counterpoint. Like much of Bach’s keyboard music, the cello suites were immediately treated as etudes or study pieces for aspiring cellists but not elevated to standard concert repertoire. Having a fairly serviceable understanding of Bach’s history, I was perhaps even more drawn to Siblin’s interweaving story of the life of Casals, of how he discovered the Suite manuscripts in a second hand bookshop in his youth and spent years in reverent study and practice of them before slowly reintroducing them to the world. A fierce Catalan nationalist living through two world wars, Casals was as equally passionate as the great Baroque master and had to contend with his own struggles and convictions. The deft counterpoint between the two histories made for an enjoyable reading experience but also served as a catalyst for my immediate listening habits.

BachLike myself, Siblin is a contemporary music connoisseur, well versed in in various styles from the post-Classical/Jazz era. When he happened upon a performance of the Bach Cello Suites it provided for a numinous experience that changed his life. While not exactly the same for me there is something similar going on with Bach and particularly these great works for cello. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why he is such a palette-cleanser – there is just something purifying in his work; a blend of the natural and the intellectual, of science and nature, of reason and mysticism. Actually, it is rather unfair that he is treated as a sort of genesis point, or taught as a great master emerging in some sanctified vacuum, untethered to all the influences and currents of his time. As we are wont to do with Shakespeare perhaps, we tend to historicise and pedestal Bach in an isolated way, ignoring the fact that he had his many influences like everyone else. But there is no doubt that his music is that of a great pioneer, even if forced to work in the backwaters of fractured German dukedoms.

For any cellist – professional, amateur or merely aspiring – the cello suites are as fournierdivine alchemical fire in the crucible, sacred and eternal. I have my own personal and historical relationship with them and still often play sections from the first and third suites. We can thank Casals for rediscovering and popularising them, but his performances of them, although wonderful and pioneering, were often considered as anachronistic in that his renditions were Romantic and not in keeping with the Baroque ethos. Unfortunately the few recordings of him were captured early within the recording industry era and suffer from poor sound quality. Perhaps the best known versions of the pieces today are those performed by Yo Yo Ma, who also presented a successful multimedia television series about them. Ma has done much to popularise the cello in our era and we have him to thank for many new pieces appearing in the solo cello repertoire. But for me he does not capture Bach the best – for there is something about the cello suites that doesn’t quite flow with the hierarchy of great 20th Century cellists. Jacqueline du Pré for instance, one of my very favourite cellists and great champion of the Elgar cello concerto, only performed one of the suites and seemed to wrestle with it through the entire performance. Great cellists like Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Ralph Kirshbaum and Pierre Fournier (pictured) have all done splendid recordings of the suites, each unique in its own interpretive and performative style. I’m particularly drawn to Fournier who, as the teacher of my childhood cello teacher in London, gives me an increased sense of personal connection to the pieces.

StarkerMy very favourite recording of the cello suites remains that of János Starker, the great Hungarian cellist that died just last year. For me, Starker is perfection, the supreme cellist for these sacred pieces. He plays them in a fluid style, without Romantic affectation, but not mechanically either. He is a joy to watch too. He doesn’t sway with the cello like Ma, tug at your heartstrings like du Pre, or command the room like Rostropovich. In fact, he’s fairly stoic, almost rigid, perpetually adorned with a sort of Buddha-like half-smile while playing. But oh how his fingers dance with effortless fingerings and pure technique. And his right arm is perhaps one of the best in all cello-playing history; complete mastery of the bow as it bounces rhythmically across the strings. Others have come close in recent years and I have particularly enjoyed the performances of Anner Bylsma, Heinrich Schiff, Truls Mork, Pieter Wispelwey, Steven Isserlis and Mischa Maisky (thank god for YouTube) among others. The latter actually recorded the entire set twice although I prefer his earlier recording. I have also heard some wonderful transcriptions for other instruments, including viola, double bass, guitar, and even xylophone. My favourite of these is the version for Viola da Gamba performed by Paolo Pandolfo – for in truth we can’t be exactly sure that Bach intended the pieces solely for cello and the Gamba version is in keeping with Baroque practices.

So, my palette was cleansed weeks ago with an in depth revisiting of these glorious pieces, and yet I have lingered in the period slightly longer this time. There was a whole world of musical influence at Bach’s fingertips, one that has been largely ignored by the revisionist masses of our day – until now.

© Daniel Staniforth, 2015

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About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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4 Responses to My Ongoing Obsession with the Bach Cello Suites

  1. Mike Harris says:

    Jacqueline du Pré “wrestle”…my dear boy, how could you!!! Bach the pioneer certainly but the Elgar is SO wonderful that it breaks your heart!

    Next week….Hendrix vs Clapton, Beck, Fripp,Townsend and the rest ???

    Best Mike

  2. Daniel says:

    Mike,

    I’m a massive fan of both Jackie and the Elgar. It’s no wonder Rostropovich stopped playing it when he heard Jackie’s version. I would only ever use the word “wrestle” to explain the existing Bach suite recording… all cellists have their speciality and Starker pales in comparison when it comes to the Romantic repertoire.

    As for follow ups – there may be some – though I’m more liable to do one on Mike Oldfield than any of the big guitar gods – except maybe Fripp, whom I admire greatly. Feel free to send me your own musical commentaries for the blog…

    Daniel

  3. Nicolas says:

    Still about Jacqueline du Pré, I suppose you are talking about the suite no 1 (in G major)?
    Jacqueline du Pré also recorded the Suite No 2 (in D minor)
    As I could agree that the first suite is maybe not the best one recorded (and its a matter of taste actually) I couldn’t agree with you on the second one. To me it’s of of the best version ever (listen to the sarabande, marvelous !)

    By the way, she was 17 when she recorded that :))
    Listen to the Adagio from Toccata and Fugue in C (recorded the same year)

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