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Solo Bach Cello Suites

Cellist and, since January, United Nations Peace Ambassador Yo-Yo Ma will be at the Kennedy Center tonight, playing three of the unaccompanied cello suites of J. S. Bach (no. 3, no. 5, and no. 6), pieces with which he is widely identified in the United States. I am not sure which cello Ma will play, his 1733 Montagnana ("Petunia") or the 1712 Davidov Stradivarius (given to him by Jacqueline du Pré): the latter is reportedly what he has used in the past for Baroque music. (The last time Ionarts heard an all-Bach cello suite recital like this was from Mischa Maisky at the National Gallery two summers ago. He also chose three suites, two of them the same as Ma is playing, no. 3 and no. 5, with no. 1 instead of no. 6.) Yo-Yo Ma is, of course, one of the big tickets of the month, more or less sold out for weeks now. Good luck trying to get into this concert at this point. Reviews will follow here and at DCist.

Available on Amazon:
available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Yo-Yo Ma (recorded in 1983, released on CD on October 25, 1990)
available at Amazon
Complete Cello Suites: Inspired by Bach, 3 vols., Yo-Yo Ma (released on DVD individually in 2000, re-released as a set on September 6, 2005)
Yo-Yo Ma's first recording of the suites, made in 1983 and released on CD in 1990, was the first recording of these pieces that I owned. I love the rhythmic playing and the dryness of rubato, although there is a rough edge to the sound sometimes. He plays the suites as what they are, dances. However, cellists play these pieces a lot, and I suppose that they are often looking for fresh perspectives on them. This was surely Ma's motivation for the second recording of the suites he made, for a series of three DVDs, combining his playing of the suites with short films on all sorts of -- mostly unrelated -- subjects. (You can buy just the audio of his performance on CD, but for some reason, it costs more than the complete set of three DVDs.)

An article by Pierre Gervasoni (Bach fait résonner les compositeurs d'aujourd'hui, March 13) for Le Monde describes the Herculean concert undertaken by French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras on March 12 at the Cité de la musique in Paris:
The former soloist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain had the idea to introduce each suite with a short, newly composed work, commissioned as a sort of "pre-echo." According to this two-pronged formula, at least from the acoustic point of view, the new piece acquires a double function: introducing a page by Bach with which it was in real harmony. Ivan Fedele's Arc-en-ciel did this duty perfectly. The spectral deployment of the harmonies announced the opening arpeggio of Bach's first suite and the range of cello colors evoked what the instrument would become in the 20th century.

Even better, the quasi-improvised tone of this new piece extended naturally into the very free and sensual performance of the first suite's prelude. The harvest of the monastic ascetism usually sought in these timeless soliloquies! For the young Frenchman, "solo" does not necessarily mean "monologue, and the Allemande shows this as a conversation animated by two voices. The other dances are just as light and eloquent.
He played all six of the suites -- the concert lasted four and a half hours with intermissions -- with the other introductory pieces by Gilbert Amy, György Kurtag, Misato Mochizuki, Jonathan Harvey, and Ichiro Nodaïra. Even after all that, Queyras produced an encore, another new work, by Philippe Schoeller. I found only one other review of this concert (Bach et le bel aujourd’hui, March 12) by Jacques Doucelin for

Available on Amazon:
available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Six Suites for Solo Cello, Matt Haimovitz (released on November 21, 2000)
Matt Haimovitz has made a name for himself partially through a crossover stunt: he performs mostly in unorthodox venues like bars and cafes, even grocery stores. Last December, he played one such concert near Washington, at Arlington's Iota Club and Cafe, with violinist Andy Simionescu. I was not able to make it myself, but Gail Wein wrote a review for the Washington Post. He did not play any of the Bach suites at that concert, but he has released an ambitious first recording of these famous pieces, made in a Massachusetts church in 2000. The sound on this disc is present and beautiful, and Haimovitz is a talented player, but this rendition is just not as pleasing to my taste. Where Ma's first recording is honest and clean, Haimovitz takes much more rubato, distorting Bach's rhythmic plan -- which is the way that a lot of cellists play the Bach suites. A lot of people like listening to a freer approach, and I usually find it masturbatory. By comparison to the timings on the Ma CD, Haimovitz takes somewhere between 30 and 90 seconds more per movement, and each suite generally takes longer -- in some cases, much longer -- to play. Haimovitz plays some of the movements with exciting verve, but others fall flat, prey to the schmaltz. In the sarabande of the fifth suite, he plays a tune which is nothing but a series of eighth notes in 3/4 in about as leaden a manner as possible. His 4:50 timing -- it's only 20 bars! -- engulfs Ma's lean 3:13.


jfl said...

Hmmmm... Bach Cello Suites. One thinks of Pierre Fournier. Or, baroque maven you are, one wonders if you have heard Peter Wispelwey. Which, if you have not, you must!


Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, I liked the Fournier but not as much as you might think. You have recommended the Wispelway before, but I have not yet heard it.

Anonymous said...

Pablo Casals's recording of BCS could be mentioned here as well.

p.s. "Rostropovich sucks, ... Maisky II is crazy, Maisky I nothing special, ditto Ma, Fournier is 'da bomb' and Wispelwey must be heard! Schiff ain't bad but not a 'must'...,"

I don't remember who said that... but since I have all these recordings... I must say... it's true.


jfl said...

Charles, I refuse to acknowledge that you don't love Fournier. :)

Kirshbaum is very nice, too... and Casals, true, should be mentioned. But the sound makes it a different experience than listening to modern recordings. (Do you have the Casals, Charles?)

jfl said...

...and, sneaking up on me, are, as I write this, the first and second suite as played by Jacqueline du Pre that are tacked onto the end of a just-issued recording of her Elgar concerto w/Barbirolli conducting. A great, raw, riveting performance of the concerto which makes it sound very modern, very dark, very experiemental. The suites (on gut) are a bit tinny in sound (recorded in 1962) but searing and long-lined, not to dance too but made for abstract foot-tapping to the underlying rhythm. Early radio recordings that are - apart from an unissued 1965 RAI 3rd suite - the only instances of her Bach having been recorded.

Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, clearly you need to write a big review-survey of the cello suite recordings (which this post was not at all intended to be). I actually have the Casals, on LP, and do love it, uncharacteristically.

jfl said...

Aha... good idea post-concert, perhaps?!

Charles T. Downey said...