In a thoroughly unscientific survey, I found over a dozen new recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites released just within the past 12 months. That’s a lot of unaccompanied cello! Not that I’m complaining. These are some of the greatest works created by humanity. And see it from the cellist’s perspective: Who wouldn’t want to record these masterpieces, even multiple times?
This has not always been the case, by the way. As with many of Bach’s works, the six solo suites were ignored after the composer’s death. But unlike some of his pieces, especially those championed by Mendelssohn and other Romantic-era Bach fans, the cello suites stayed buried for a long time. They were considered too difficult and academic by most cellists in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century they’d been entirely forgotten.
We have the great Pablo Casals to thank for their revival in the active repertoire. The story goes that Casals found a copy of the score in a thrift shop when he was only 13, and he determined right then and there to master them. By 1939, he had become the first person to record all six suites.
In 2019, on the other hand, there are more new recordings than can be covered here. So I’ll focus on a few that you might not find written about elsewhere.
One of those is on the label Animal Music, a recording of the first three suites by Jiří Bárta (not to be confused with the Czech animator of the same name). As you can hear in this Courante from Suite No. 1, Bárta belongs to the Russian school of cello technique, producing a multi-dimensional, at times craggy sound. And while there’s an appealing wildness in his playing, there’s also a stateliness to it. He clearly understands the Baroque background of these dance-based movements.
The Sarabande from Suite No. 2 has an appropriately contrasting style, with Bárta presenting the typically mournful movement type as a deep meditation. He separates the phrases by breaths, as if he’s talking himself through some of life’s weightier puzzles.
In quite a different interpretation of Suites 1-3, Italian early-music specialist Francesco Galligioni released a recording on the label Fra Bernardo. In his work as scholar and teacher, Galligioni has focused on Baroque bowing techniques. The results are obvious in this solo recording. (There are multiple scores extant from Bach’s time that conflicting slurs over the notes, so bowing and phrasing are a point of central concern for these pieces.)
In the Prelude to Suite No. 3, you’ll hear patterns of accents, like the bow biting the string, that bring out a new and interesting shape to a movement meant to sound somewhat meandering and thoughtful.
The smaller sound of a Baroque cello as compared to the modern version gives rhythmically strict movements like this Gigue from Suite No. 2 an intense intimacy. Unlike some early-music players, Galligioni never lets his commitment to authenticity diminish his expressiveness.
Just out in September 2019, Marko Ylönen’s recording of all six suites for Alba Music makes a favorable impression for different reasons. It was my first experience hearing this Finnish cellist. His touch is buoyant, more of the French than Russian style. His interpretation is – if I may use this word to describe cello-playing – humble. There’s something reverent and self-deprecating in his meticulous phrasing and tone production.
This approach could have gone overboard and sounded twee, but because the intention is so earnest and well-prepared, it’s difficult not to be moved. And his cello itself is extraordinarily resonant, an instrument made in the early 18th century by Venetian master Mateo Goffriller. I hope I get a chance to hear it live someday.
Here’s the Prelude to the first suite.
That’s the only movement on Youtube so far, but you can hear the whole album on Spotify:
2019 brought out the usual array of performances of the Cello Suites on other instruments. (For those who are curious, there is some evidence that Bach did not intend these to be played on the cello we’re used to at all, but rather on a violoncello da spalla, “shoulder cello,” which is sort of like a bowed guitar – and looks as awkward as you might imagine.)
Nowadays, violin and viola are the most common replacement instruments. Using her own transcriptions, British musician Rachel Podger plays all six suites on violin in a new Channel Classics recording. The Baroque period is Podger’s specialty, so it’s no surprise that she sounds comfortable and confident in this repertoire.
This thoughtful interpretation of the Allemande from Suite No. 1 has clarity and purpose. Podger is also a conductor, which may help her to comprehend the larger-scale motions in Bach’s work as well as his “implied polyphony,” the fancy name for a single instrument jumping around to different ranges as if there were multiple instruments playing.
She takes a lot of liberties with this gigue, not keeping to a steady 6/8 time but allowing each sentence to stand on its own. On the other hand, her phrasing is deliberate, never random or stalled out. It almost works, even if I’d need some convincing that it’s genuinely Baroque.
The most intriguing but least successful non-cello endeavor is Rodrigo Serrão’s recording of Suite No. 1 (on Kbranca Music) performed on the Chapman stick. That’s a 12-string electronic guitar, invented by American jazz guitarist Emmett Chapman in the 1970s.
It’s a fascinating instrument, played by slapping the fingers onto the fret rather than plucking. I have no objection to the sound of the Chapman stick for rendering Bach, but I object strongly to Serrão’s formless melt-down of all rhythmic structure. Except for the opening Prelude, all of Bach’s suite movements are based on rhythmically strict courtly dances, so amorphous self-indulgence negates much of Bach’s craft and purpose.
There’s way too much schtick on that stick. Bach doesn’t need that kind of help.