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Just What Are the Bach Cello Suites?

Other Bach Suite Recordings on Ionarts:

Yo-Yo Ma (1983 and 2000, heard live in 2006)

Mischa Maisky (1985 and 2000, heard live in 2004)

Matt Haimovitz (2000)

Pierre Fournier (1977)

Pieter Wispelway (1998)
Following on our monumental assault on the Goldberg Variations, I wanted to write about some more recent recordings of the Bach solo cello suites. I wrote recently about the recordings of Yo-Yo Ma and Matt Haimovitz, and Jens has reviewed several others (see the links at right). They are seminal works, and it is really not unusual for people to own more than one version. I have been listening to two more that are off the beaten path but that I think are worth serious consideration. Of course, if we are to believe one recent theory, J. S. Bach did not even compose the cello suites. As reported by Vivien Schweitzer (Australian Academic Claims Bach's Wife Wrote the Cello Suites, April 24) for PlaybillArts, an Australian scholar named Martin Jarvis is proposing that they are actually the work of the composer's second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach:
Jarvis first studied the Bach Cello Suites as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Speaking about the works in an interview on Australia's ABC radio, he said, "[The suites] don't sound musically mature. It sounds like an exercise, and you have to work incredibly hard to make it sound like a piece of music." In 2001, Jarvis, the son of a policeman father, learned how to conduct forensic testing of the handwriting on Bach's manuscripts. In the radio interview, he said he "found things that didn't make sense, and seemed to go in conflict with the current thinking on Bach's handwriting. I found Anna Magdalena's handwriting in places where it shouldn't have been. In other words, assuming that the idea that it's her handwriting is correct, then it's in places where we really shouldn't be finding it."
Most musicologists who have expressed an opinion agree that this theory is untenable, so we don't have to give up another Bach work to some other composer quite yet. Yes, the suites are found in a manuscript written by Anna Magdalena (and named for her), but she copied lots of her husband's works. The suites are found in other manuscript sources, as well. However, Yo Tomita, who is a very respected authority on Bach, is reportedly waiting to hear more, so that is worth considering, especially since Jarvis implicates not only the cello suites as possibly composed by Anna Magdalena, but also the aria of the Goldberg Variations and the first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier first volume. Can we live in a world where those pieces were not composed by J. S. Bach?

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J. S. Bach, The Six Cello Suites, Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba (released on September 25, 2001)
Bach actually wrote works for the viola da gamba, an instrument that was definitely at the declining end of its lifespan in the first half of the 18th century. He composed the six suites for the cello, or rather for a few variations of the Baroque cello, most for four strings in different tunings, and one suite for an instrument with five strings. The precedents for these pieces, however, are in the virtuosic solo works for viola da gamba, especially those by French composers. (This is probably why the annotations in the Anna Magdalena manuscript are in French.) For this ingenious CD, viola da gamba virtuoso Paolo Pandolfo (whom I heard at Dumbarton Oaks in January) decided to play the Bach cello suites as if they were pieces for the viola da gamba. As he acknowledges in the liner notes, he has transposed the keys of some of the suites, to make them more suitable for the viola da gamba. This is a little anachronistic -- transcribing a work for an instrument that antedates the score -- and there are sections that do not work well. However, I have the sense listening to this recording that Bach was indeed writing for an instrument (or instruments, more on that below) significantly different from the modern cello, and the viola da gamba can realize many of those sounds.

For example, the deepest notes that Bach writes, often as pedal notes or even chords and written as short notes at the start of each measure, often sound very dry and short on the cello. The French viola da gamba, after Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, often had an extra seventh, very low string, and suddenly those low notes in the ring out and hang in the air underneath as Bach wanted (good examples are in the prelude of the first suite, where the initial notes of each arpeggiated group continue to resonate, and that famous extended pedal G toward the end of the third suite's prelude). Much of the arpeggiated figuration can be handled much faster on the viola da gamba, too, where the sound is much lighter and more spidery (as in the preludes of the second and fourth suites). This fleetness serves Pandolfo quite well in the courantes (as in the first suite). All of the special dance movements -- menuets in nos. 1 and 2, bourrées in nos. 3 and 4, and gavottes in nos. 5 and 6 -- are particularly light-footed and balletic.

Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gambaThe strings and bow of Pandolfo's viola da gamba allow for much greater possibilities than the cello at the soft end of the dynamic spectrum. Pandolfo uses this advantage to create contrast on repeats, which he usually takes (as in the very soft Gigue of the first suite, repeated in a louder and filled-out version). One of the most effective contrasts is in the sarabande of the fourth suite, where the first statement of both sections is in the most charming pizzicato (not marked in the score, of course, but I don't care). Another good example where the softness is an advantage is in the difficult allemande of the sixth suite, a page clouded with 32nd notes, rendered so lightly and effortlessly by Pandolfo, as is the similarly difficult gigue.

Pandolfo calls his versions "adaptations," and he has changed quite a few parts of the score, often actually adding rather than taking away. Single notes often become thirds, and he tends to add chords where Bach could only imply them on the cello (lots of examples in the allemande of the third suite). It all sounds like it comes from the score. This is a highly ornamented performance, too, which is something I miss in all those repeats on many recordings. Years of playing Baroque music lead Pandolfo, quite appropriately, to double dot the French ouverture of the fifth suite prelude and to modify to notes inégales in that suite's courante. The only part of this recording that I could do without is the lengthy extra booklet that contains a text by Pandolfo, Un Libro Antico, an "imaginary dialogue between a violincello and a viola da gamba." The idea is interesting and has plenty of Baroque antecedents, but it is ultimately unnecessary.

The sixth suite is the one that causes real problems, and some of the very high notes, especially in the prelude, are difficult to realize (it was written for a violoncello piccolo). However, in that same prelude, Pandolfo is able to realize the big chords toward the end, which are written as eighth notes, as whispers. His is one of the few performances I know where those chords are actually rendered as eighth notes. I can attest from hearing Pandolfo live -- at Dumbarton Oaks, where I was so close that I could have reached out and pulled the instrument from his hands -- that this is a soft instrument. It would never carry in a room like the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where Yo-Yo Ma recently played three of the Bach suites. So, the mikes are placed close to Pandolfo, and we hear a lot of noise from the fingerboard and the player's sighs and breathing sounds. For that reason, the sound may not please everyone. For any listener obsessed with the Bach cello suites, however, these discs are worth hearing.

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J. S. Bach, The Six Cello Suites, Bruno Cocset (released on October 13, 2003)
Bach composed the sixth suite for an instrument that is definitely not like the modern cello, an instrument with five strings, as indicated by the open-string annotation that precedes the score in the manuscript. What Bach had in mind was probably the violoncello piccolo, a small version of the cello that had a fifth, high melodic string. In listening to many performances of the suites, I have often thought that it would certainly be better to hear the sixth suite on the instrument Bach wanted rather than forcing it to work on the modern cello. French cellist Bruno Cocset, a former student of Christophe Coin, took this impulse to an extravagant degree, performing the six suites on four different instruments. He worked with luthier Charles Riché, advising him on choices of instruments on which modern reconstructions could be based, matching the sounds and set-up of each instrument to the demands of particular suites. The recording is apparently no longer available in the United States, but it can be acquired directly from Europe.

The main problem with this recording is the sound, because the microphones were close enough to bring us every breath -- fortunately, Cocset does not sing along with himself, but he is a heavy sigher -- and the often distracting clack of Cocset's fingers on the fingerboard. If that sort of auditory intimacy with the performer bothers you, then you will not enjoy this disc. However, the performance captured here is like no other and has an immediacy to it that I find appealing.

Bruno Cocset, cellist, image by CríticoThe other detail, albeit a minor one, that I like about this recording is that the suites are presented in numerical order, which is not always the case in complete recordings. With all that we know about the encyclopedic nature of Bach's collections, the order of pieces in the manuscript must be important (if for nothing else to preserve the ordering of the special dance pieces mentioned above). When listening to the entire set, I think it is better to hear them in the manuscript order or risk losing some of the artifice Bach intended.

For the first and fifth suites, Cocset plays Charles Riché's 2000 copy of a cello built by Gasparo da Salo around the year 1600. Cocset chooses some of the fastest tempi I have heard and does so in a rhythmically vital way, which is exciting to hear. His attack, therefore, is often brusque -- no quasi-Romantic lines here -- and some of the notes come across more as tight-lipped growls than anything else. His ornamentation is fairly limited -- in general, Cocset is very faithful to the score -- but there are some nice changes on the repeats. This instrument makes a lovelier sound on the extensive prelude of the fifth suite, especially in the opening slow section. He has a nice touch on the fifth suite's sarabande, too, one of the most enigmatic dances in the whole set, although the uniform tone is a little gloomy. The gavottes pulse with earthy excitement.

For the second and fourth suites, Riché modeled his 2001 copy on an instrument much closer to the time of the suites' composition, a Pietro Guarneri made in 1734. It has a rich sound, although the big chords of the second suite's prelude and other pieces sound weak played broken up as they are. As with most performances on the cello, the low notes often cannot be held for their full duration: the score often indicates that Bach wanted them to continue to sound longer than a single note of the upper melody. In this suite, Cocset's very rapid tempo in the courante betrays him in terms of accuracy on the A string, and some of the highest notes are off the mark. Most of the sarabandes on this recording are dreary because of the slow tempi, and this one is no exception. The menuets are also not pleasing because the rhythmic flow is slightly off-kilter. In the fourth suite, I do like the beautifully sensitive sarabande, including the nice ornamentation on the repeats, and the agile bourrées.

In the third suite, the instrument is Riché's 1996 copy of an Antonio Stradivari cello made in 1700, which has a lighter sound. The prelude twirls by at quite a clip, especially the long G pedal, which has an ultrarhythmic impetus to it, as do the allemande and charming bourrées. The musette effect in the gigue, also at a rather fast tempo, is unlike any I have heard elsewhere, a little rough and ready and definitely folkish. Certainly, for the sixth suite, in many ways the piece finally makes musical sense, when all those very high melodies can not only be played exactly as Bach wrote them down but also sound full-throated on the tension of that high string not found on the modern cello. The violoncello piccolo Cocset plays is a copy of an instrument built around 1600 by Antonio and Girolamo Amati, and it has the most beautiful sound on these discs.

Having heard many fine cellists sound strangled on the high stretches of the sixth suite, this performance is revelatory. The melancholy sarabande is more stunning than any other performance I have heard, because that high melody is no longer so precarious. The challenging gigue seems to roll off the page more easily, because the nature of the instrument corresponds better to what the composer put on the page. The recording is worth hearing for the sixth suite alone.


Dave E. said...

Well, the Starker recordings on Mercury recorded in 1965 remain the canonical set for me. Starker's 1992 recordings of the suites for RCA are also great. And he certainly has no problem with the upper register on the sixth suite. For my money, he blows Yo-Yo away.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post.
There are a few new recordings of the Bach Suites.
I recently bought the version of cellist Josephine van Lier.
She recorded the suites in a very different way (in 2010). Somewhat a comparison between modern cellos and baroque cellos. The difference between her contemporary French cello, the baroque cello and her carbon fiber instrument are very striking. Then she had a violoncello piccolo made for the 6th Suite.
Very well playing and excellent sound quality. The 4 CD set is well presented too.

geofflebowski said...

Thanks for an interesting sequence of articles on these pieces. I have listened to the Pandolfo set several times and I share your enthusiasm for his taste and skill in transforming the musical notation on page into performances of quality

Anonymous said...

Nobody blows Yo-Yo away, NOBODY. Get a clue, Yo-Yo is God on the cello, Janos couldn't hold a candle to Ma. Period.