Hearing Bach

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Among the most-played and -recorded of J. S. Bach’s instrumental works are his six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and six Suites for solo cello. They have acquired a reputation for being quite difficult to perform and “hear,” i.e., listen to with intent. That sounds like something illegal in four or five states, but it isn’t.

Right now, we have a special chance to discover—or rediscover!—the joy of listening with intent. Three recent recordings of the Cello Suites offer distinctly different roads to hearing-and-understanding. (All are available as high-res downloads, incidentally.) Only one comes from a cellist—but it’s Yo-Yo Ma. This is his third go-round, good enough to stop most folks from looking further. Another complete set comes, via ECM, from violist Kim Kashkashian, renowned interpreter of contemporary music. Turns out she’s exceptionally good at pre-1750 repertoire too. Finally, let’s welcome Bolette Roed, a recorder master whose newest collection includes transcriptions of selected Bach solo violin and cello works. (For the cello suites she uses a tenor recorder.)

Time to wade right in. Here is an excerpt from the Prelude to Suite No. 2 in D Minor. You can follow along if you want, because I’ve patched in part of an authentic 18th-century manuscript score. It’s in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann’s wife, and dates from c.1727–30. Look, listen:

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Visually, this music presents as one long, nearly unbroken phrase. That half-page of manuscript alone features more than 160 16th-notes (the itty-bitty, quick kind), seldom interrupted by 8ths, quarters, or rests. They just keep coming and coming.

But the music doesn’t quite sound that way, does it? Ma knows how to shape the flow, using gentle tenutos (slightly held notes), occasional forward motion (mere hints of speed), microdynamic growth-and-decay, and once in a while a whiff of vibrato. Thanks to him, we can hear the structure: repeated motives, slight variations on those repeats, extensions of previously sounded variations. As a result, motives seem, well, motivated. We’re getting somewhere.

I’ve always been especially fond of melodic extensions, for which the Germans have a word: Fortspinnung, “spinning forth.” The performer must take care: too much unbroken Fortspinnung and we get lost—confused, then bored. On the other hand, too many punctuations or emphases or “shaping” and we lose momentum, then coherence. We need the forest and the trees. The music must move forward, but within a framework created by careful attention to Bach’s structure. (Note to beginners: don’t try to create your own damn structure. Discover Bach’s.) It must go somewhere—regardless of disruptions or side glances—and it must eventually arrive.

Here’s Kashkashian playing the same passage:

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Different, no? And not just because her instrument is pitched an octave higher and she holds it under her chin. She also shapes the phrases differently, resulting in expression that may seem less dreamy here, more intense there, in turns contemplative and passionate, but always worked up within boundaries established by the composer three hundred years ago.

Each suite is made up of a Prelude followed by four “old” dances—Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue—plus pairs of one “modern” dance—Minuet, Bourrée, Gavotte—inserted between Sarabande and Gigue. The six Preludes are the longest and most diverse movements in the collection. They range from sunny moto perpetuo exercises like the well-known Prelude to Suite No. 1:

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all the way over to the French-overture-influenced Prelude of Suite No. 5:

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Those are the stately statements and “dotted” rhythms, flash and filigree of a French overture, treated here at a slower tempo, and with more freedom, than you might expect. (Click here to hear a more straightforward French overture as a comparison; its fugue begins at 2:46.) I chose Kashkashian for the clip above because she does the opening marginally faster, and with more rhythmic snap, than does Ma. But Ma works wonders with the fugal passages that follow (in a French overture, they nearly always follow). He introduces a furtive, ghostly feeling that complements the opening material really well:

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Bear in mind that the composer sets himself a difficult task here: he’s got to suggest a three- or four-voice fugue—a fairly strict contrapuntal exercise in which several voices go at the same subject simultaneously, their sounds overlapping and competing with one another (click here for a comparative example). How in the world do you do that with a single instrument that customarily plays one, count ‘em, one melodic line plus an occasional chord-like flourish? Well, Kashkashian’s your friend. Listen to how she “voices” the fugue:

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Remember, those are the same notes Bach wrote for Ma. I like both interpretations, and there’s no need to declare a winner; this isn’t the 440-yard dash.

Let’s get back to Bolette Roed, the recorder player, for a moment. You heard her essay the G-major Prelude above, and you probably already have an opinion about her performance. But let’s hear something else:

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That’s the Courante from the G-major suite, and that’s more like it, right? The music seems well-suited to the instrument, the phrasing is crisp, consistent, and appropriate, and the player’s need to breathe doesn’t get in the way so much. Maybe that’s a lesson for steel-drum bands, accordionists, and ocarina players who persist in playing Bach even though he never heard a steel drum in his life. You can certainly do it—but choose carefully, and get a genius arranger.

We have just enough space for one more sample. Let’s do the Sarabande from Suite No. 5. Why? For one thing, it probably contains fewer notes than any other piece in the collection. So in this case, the simplicity of the music is itself the jaw-dropper, especially when you consider that Bach has to pull bass and accompaniment from the melody itself. First Kashkashian:

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Then Ma:

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And finally Roed, although her new album doesn’t include Suite No. 5. Here’s a fine substitute from Suite No. 1 in G major. Might as well leave you with one of the most upbeat Sarabandes in the collection!

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Next time: lutes, lutes, and more lutes.

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