I’ve already praised Stephen Isserlis’s wonderful performances of Bach cello suites, and now, as if by magic, he’s written a definitive guide:
- Stephen Isserlis, The Bach cello suites: a companion (2021).
Here’s a trailer for his complete recordings of the suites (2007):
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and indeed, Steven writes about them too—but his comments are glorious, leading one irresistibly to the music, and performance. The book is intended “for music-lovers of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the casual listener to the performing musician”; by contrast with the ponderous style of academics whose worthy, voluminous research he digests so well, his chatty style feels personal and communicative rather than twee, always informed by his insights as a performer. Do also consult his website, where he writes engagingly (e.g. his fine post on Harpo).
After a brief biography of Bach, in Part 2 (“The genesis of the suites”) Steven ponders some basic questions. In “Why did Bach write the suites?” he surveys earlier works—Italian pieces for unaccompanied cello, and a German repertoire for unaccompanied violin; and he often contrasts Bach’s own violin sonatas and partitas from around the same period. He explores for whom the cello suites might have been written, and for what instrument, introducing the various types of cello then played, as well as the bow—so important in animating the music. We can’t even date the suites precisely, though they were composed during Bach’s years at Köthen, before he settled in Leipzig.
His discussion of the four early sources, and their relationships, renders arcane scholarship accessible and relevant to performance—seemingly minor differences in the notes, in slurring, and so on—illustrating the latter with the Prelude of the first suite. While making a convincing case for informed readings of the research to illuminate performance, he is amused by scholarly spats:
I am a member of various societies devoted to composers—partly because I’m interested in those composers, and partly because I find it so funny to read such things as, for instance, Professor Y’s triumphant assertion that Professor Z is quite wrong to say that Liszt arrived in Bologna on 30 October, because here is a restaurant bill from a Bologna restaurant dated 28 October. The next newsletter is then likely to contain a furious letter from Professor Z, pointing out that the 28 October bill—as all the world (except Professor Y, evidently) knows—actually dates from the previous year, when Liszt was between Modena and Imola and stopped off for lunch in Bologna between 1pm and 3pm; with all due respect (i.e. very little), Professor Z suggests that Professor Y should have done her homework, and perhaps had her eyesight checked, before making such preposterous allegations.
Steven’s account of reception history is also fascinating. While Bach’s music was not completely forgotten after his death, the cello suites were. Several editions were published in the 1820s, but they still remained accessible only to a select few. At Schumann’s behest, they were performed complete in Düsseldorf over New Year 1853–54, but any other sporadic performances were mostly of single movements, sometimes with piano accompaniment (Shock Horror). In 1879 the suites were eventually published in the Bach Gesellschaft edition. But still, their modern rediscovery came only with Pablo Casals (1876–1973), who at the age of 13 came across a (dodgy) edition in a music shop near the harbour in Barcelona, and later went on to popularise the suites throughout the world. His complete recordings from 1936 to 1939 were made at a particularly traumatic time for both Spain and the world:
In Part 3 Steven stresses the nature of the works as collections of dance movements. After outlining the history of the suite, he explains the style of the individual genres, beginning with the Prelude, then a term for improvisation, “the highest peak of performance” (Mattheson). He gives a fine exposition of the varied tempi of the “challenging” Allemandes, which were already rather distant from social dancing. Following the Courante, “like majestically beating hearts at the centre of each suite, the Sarabandes are oases of poignant calm”, far from the risqué nature of the dance’s Central American origins. After Menuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte comes the final, exuberant Gigue.
In Part 4 Steven adroitly answers fourteen FAQs, including wise comments on style and thoughts on the baroque cello, strings, and bow. On playing from memory:
I do find a music stand somehow impedes contact with an audience in these pieces. […] I did play the fourth suite once with a page-turner; but he turned consistently one movement ahead of the one I was actually playing—so I had to play it from memory after all. I found, in fact, that I could do it—so I thanked him; he’d done me a favour.
He then suggests fourteen rules for the player, beginning with Rule 1: “There are NO rules for playing this music”. Other advice includes “Don’t demonstrate your ideas”, “Dance!”, and he offers wise words on the sparing, expressive use of vibrato, as well as stressing the (often invisible) bassline, and the harmonic structure. Finally he reminds us to enjoy playing the music, with all its joy and humour.
Part 5 makes an impressive case for an underlying sacred programme behind the suites—making them effectively a suite of suites depicting the life of Christ. Here, and throughout, Steven makes insightful comparisons with other Bach works, in particular the church cantatas. Citing Ruth Tatlow, he ponders Bach’s interest in the symbolism of numbers. He then offers rather detailed programmes:
- 1 Nativity (with a fine analysis of the Prelude)
- 2 The Agony in the Garden
- 3 The Holy Trinity—or the Ascension
- 4 Magnificat—or the Presentation in the Temple
- 5 Crucifixion
- 6 Resurrection.
For the second suite he thoughtfully discusses the puzzling chords at the end of the Prelude; while admitting the possibility of decorating them in the style of the rest of the movement, he also makes an analogy with the Five Holy Wounds.
By contrast with the C major “blaze of glory” of the third suite, the C minor tonality of the fifth suite, “perfect backdrop for the unfolding of tragedy”, is echoed in other “sombre masterpieces” (the final movements of Bach’s own Passions, Mozart, Brahms, Rachmaninoff: see here). At its heart is the Sarabande, “the epitome of loneliness, desolation, despair”.
For the sixth suite,
Having darkened the sound of the cello with the tuned-down A string in the fifth suite, Bach now reaches out to the sky with a fifth string, an E string a fifth above the A—rather like those medieval master builders who developed Gothic windows, with pointed arches reaching towards heaven, letting in more light.
He likens the opening to the pealing of bells—a more authentic simile than the equally evocative image of the Sicilian marranzanu jew’s harp (a post that also includes a complete live performance of the six suites by Yoyo Ma at the Proms).
Steven continues to sing the praises of this Prelude in Part 6, where he takes the suites movement by movement, pondering nuances. For the Courante of the first suite (“a bundle of fun”) he recalls his teacher-guru Jane Cowan describing it as “a portrait of a street entertainer performing an energetic dance to the accompaniment of his pet monkey banging on a drum”; she characterised the Gigue as “drunk”. He includes notes on bowings that (as ever) are not just technical but musical too—such as the Prelude of the third suite, where he explores a conundrum in the variant sources (“Anna Magdalena has been at the wine again”). For his comments on the Sarabande of the fifth suite, click here.
As to the wonderful Allemande of the sixth suite (another alap, I’d say),
If one is thinking in terms of the recitatives that the short note-values bring to mind, there must be a certain freedom within the beat; but it is at least equally important to remember that, even though the style may be vocal in nature, it is still an allemande. […] One has to breathe in expansive, unhurried spans, perhaps imagining a moving bassline controlling the flow of the melodic current.
“The greatest cycle ever to be written for a solo cello” is completed with a Gigue of “bounding, irresistible, unquenchable joy”, with “pedal-note passages, more folk instruments, more bells, impossibly huge leaps…”
And as Steven writes, having completed this glorious cycle, Bach probably just
put down his pen and went out to rehearse, or to repair his harpsichord quill plectrums; or perhaps he settled down to a convivial dinner involving singing with his family and friends, his next masterpieces already buzzing around in his head.
The book makes a fine companion, inviting a wide audience to immerse themselves in these miraculous suites.
* * *
See also A Bach retrospective. Other fine performers who write eloquently about Bach include John Eliot Gardiner (e.g. here and here) and John Butt. Meanwhile in India, the art of dhrupad is less varied but no less profound; and the maqam/muqam/mugham suites performed throughout the Middle East and Central Asia are vast edifices. See also Unpacking “improvisation”.