I recently got a new recording—by a guy names Zuill Bailey– of the Bach solo cello suites, recordings of which have been numerous over the years. I know most of the great versions but I still wanted to check the new CD out.
It was a good performance, but what I noticed—once again—was the physical exertion of the cellist. I first noticed this in an old 1962 recording by a Hungarian cellist named Janos Starker. Like the new recording, you can hear the cellist breath in between phrases, feel and hear them lunge into the musical phrases, and you can feel the physical energy required to bring this music to life.
Many people are bored by classical music and think it’s old and staid and conservative. And sometimes it is. Not so with the Bach cello suites.
It seems to me that people equate Pete Townsend smashing his guitar on the stage floor or Sting leaping up into the air with the physical energy demanded in performance. I think it’s more for effect, even though it’s exciting to watch and turns on the crowd. But it’s also good to see and know how energetic and exciting classical music, even on a lone solo instrument, can be.
So when you listen to a Starker or Rostropovich or Yo-Yo Ma recording of the Bach solo cello suites—always an amazing and joyous journey in sonic architecture—just listen for the breathing. It’s part of the musical heartbeat of this timeless masterpiece.