Show #155: Bach Cello Suites Celebrated by 8 Great Cellists

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<!-- missing image -->This is kind of an experimental show. Bach wrote six beautiful suites for solo cello, and I want to showcase two of them through interpretations by eight different cellists. The cello is probably the closest instrument to the human voice in terms of range and pitch. The form even resembles a human body (think Man Ray’s 1924 photo of Kiki de Montparnasse, called “

These suites may have been lost to the dustbin of history, if not for Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist who discovered the works in a Barcelona music store a hundred years ago. He had to transcribe it to fit the modern cello; Bach wrote it for a five or six string instrument. Casals felt it was a spiritual experience playing these six suites, which he did most of his life first thing after morning coffee. He truly opened the book for all cellists who followed him, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for all the great versions we have to choose from today.

Interestingly, Bach didn’t indicate tempo markings, so the cellists are able to choose their own phrasing and time.  No two versions of these suites are alike. That being said, we begin with Casals in a 1930’s recording of the first movement of Cello Suite #1 in G. Part 2 of this first suite is performed by Hungarian cellist Janos Starker, from 1963 & 1965 recordings I’ve always loved. His playing is powerful, heroic. Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performs part 3. Yo-Yo Ma, the best-known cellist of the bunch, performs part 4. He plays with total flow and fluidity. Young American cellist Zuill Bailey follows for part 5 with an energetic approach to the work. As in the Starker 1962 recording, you can hear Bailey breathe as he lunges into the next phrase. Like Rostropovich, Bailey plays it fast. You get a feel for the physical exertion necessary to play these magnificent works, something you might not hear in a cello concerto with an orchestra. (See video below.) The final part of Cello Suite #1 in G is rendered by Italian cellist Luigi Piovano. I find his interpretation sensuous, round and lush, like a good Super Tuscan red wine. The more I listen, the more I like him. In fact, I’m going to listen to him again.

This completes Bach’s first solo cello suite. Which recording do you like the most? For me, the Casals is marred by 1930’s recording technology;  Rostropovich plays the suites very fast, too fast for my liking; Yo-Yo Ma has done the most popular version and has the highest profile of all interpreters here. I like Starker and Bailey a lot. And it seems the shadow of Casals hovers over these sacred and virtuosic works, as if to say, “don’t insult the maestro.”

Next we hear two more fabulous cellists, a young Frenchman named Jean-Guihen Queyras and Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma. Both recordings are extraordinary in that they are playing Italian cellos that go back to 1696 and 1701. The latter was a rare Stradivarius, the “Servais.” There is something about the sound of these ancient instruments that makes these two versions special. The Bylsma recording’s Strad is tuned to 435, not 440, and has a larger body and deeper tone than most modern cellos. The Queyras set comes with a DVD, which allows you to watch him perform the suites.  Queyras, compared to Piovano, is more like a Bordeaux red: a leaner, perhaps less nuanced sound, but still played with perfection. Bylsma also takes a lot of liberties with the suites. I hope I don’t sound like a wine critic, though there are similarities between great music and fine wine.

Einstein once commented on the perfection of nature reflected in the symmetry of a chambered nautilus. I would add to this the symmetry of Bach, who is honored and celebrated by these great recordings. Anybody who loves music should have at least one version of this timeless work.

Here is American cellist Zuill Bailey performing the first suite:

Next a version by Anner Bylsma:

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 4/22/16:

  1. Pablo Casals / Bach Cello Suite in G PT 1 / Six Suites for Solo Cello / EMI
  2. Janos Starker / Bach Cello Suite in G PT 2 / Suites for Solo Cello / Mercury
  3. Mstislav Rostropovich / Bach Cello Suite in G PT 3 / Cello Suites / Warner Classics
  4. Yo-Yo Ma / Bach Cello Suite in G PT 4 / Inspired by Bach: The Cello Suites / Sony Classical
  5. Zuill Bailey / Bach Cello Suite in G PT 5 / Bach Cello Suites / Telarc
  6. Luigi Piovano / Bach Cello Suite in G PT 6 / Bach Cello Suites / Eloquentia
  7. Jean-Guihen Queyras / Bach Cello Suite in D PT 1 / Bach Cello Suites / Harmonia Mundi
  8. Jean-Guihen Queyras / Bach Cello Suite in D PT 2 / Bach Cello Suites / Harmonia Mundi
  9. Anner Bylsma / Bach Cello Suite in D PT 3 / J. S. Bach Suites for Violoncello Solo BWV / Sony Classical
  10. Anner Bylsma / Bach Cello Suite in D PT 4 / J. S. Bach Suites for Violoncello Solo BWV / Sony Classical

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