There must be close to a dozen versions of Bach’s six Suites for solo cello on my shelves, plus two of viola transcriptions. All received their due attention, but in truth only a handful are revisited. Since Luigi Piovano’s readings came my way they have often spun on my platter and seldom return to their shelf.
With the possible exception of Heinrich Schiff’s especially frisky take, no other version embarks with such enthusiasm on the Prelude of the First. In technical mastery and rounded tone, Piovano approaches Ma’s set, but he can also feign ease about the playing. He conjures and sustains a joyful momentum also in the Allemande that follows, yet those colours take on a far darker hue to deliver a contemplative Sarabande. While he invokes reverie-like spaces, Casals takes this Sarabande to the verge of tragedy.
For those unfamiliar, an initial word on the Cello Suites may give some context to one of music’s great wonders — and mysteries. They were probably composed around 1720, although we aren’t ever likely to know for certain as Bach's original manuscripts have been lost. Some oddities about the Suites are that the Fifth requires unusual tuning and the Sixth was composed for a five-stringed instrument. We also don’t know what Bach envisaged regarding their tempi, dynamics or bowing.
It is even unclear just why he composed them, since they do not belong to any known tradition. Gambist and composer Carl Friedrich Abel has been put forward as one possible talent skilled enough for them but no record exists of a performance during Bach’s lifetime. In fact, as a set they’re very likely to have first been performed only in the twentieth century.
Unlike composers who worked out of Vienna, London and Paris, Bach toiled in remote Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, Cöthen and Leipzig. This accounts for why fame nearly eluded him in his lifetime and partly also for the “loss” of these works for so long. After his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian’s music was outshone by his more up-to-date sons, composers Carl Philip Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, although it never really went into total eclipse.
Best known in his heyday for accomplishments as a composer of organ and choral works, his other keyboard music never stopped being admired by musicians and fans. The biggest hurdle to widespread fame was that Bach did not compose operas — the reputation-making spectacles for centuries prior to the movie era. He was prolific, however, in his period’s other prominent musical forum, church ceremonies, with a large body of cantatas and other choral works. So when the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn famously staged an abridged - yet overblown - performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829, the acclaim he generated did not awaken Bach’s reputation as much as enhance and entrench it.
Another factor delaying recognition of his full musical stature was that on his death Bach’s works were divided up between his sons. Wilhelm Friedemann liked to hand out some of his manuscripts to important guests, effectively scattering the collection. It is thought that those misguided party favours may have included manuscripts of the six Suites for solo cello.
In 1890, Casals, then a thirteen-year-old aspiring cellist, happened upon a dusty edition of sheet music for the Suites in a shop in Barcelona’s old port. The music must have appeared to be dry technical exercises, and hardly for public performance — although they were clearly not for beginners. After a dozen years of steady work on them, Casals screwed up the courage to play one complete Suite in public. Eventually, in the 1930s, he recorded all six. These are landmark recordings (EMI CHS 7610272
) that still stand out on anyone’s shelf, and remain a top-seller internationally.
Some call Casals’ a “monumental” traversal, since his playing belies his decades-long trepidation about the Suites’ demands. Others view his approach as melodramatic, calling attention to the player at the expense of the music. Some even suggest they reflect his anguish about being on the democratic, losing side in the Spanish Civil War, which raged on during the recording. Mstislav Rostropovich calls Casals’ versions romantic and rhapsodic, as opposed to scholastic and arid. They’re certainly not lacking in intensity, no doubt in part due to his use of rubato — now considered outmoded for violating historically-informed performance (HIP) principles. Even so, Casals’ interpretations are also famed for their singing quality, if perhaps at the expense of attention to tone and precise execution.
What makes the Suites so special, if it can be put in a short paragraph, is that variations in tempi and dynamics can elicit a multiplicity of lines and voices that play on in the listener’s “internal ear”. There is always more, heard and unheard, going on in them than at first appears. This underlies the Suites’ endless musicality, and accounts for the continuing stream of soloists wishing to utter them afresh — and, often, more than just once.
Indeed, unlike Casals’ awe about the Suites, every cellist these days seems eager to tackle these works — leading to many
recorded traversals yet a dearth of unique, memorable interpretations. Notable versions have to include the set (EMI D273269-2
) by Rostropovich, the inheritor of Casals’ mantle as the cello’s greatest exponent. More than just that, ‘Slava’ was its greatest advocate ever, having commissioned and performed most noteworthy cello works composed in the last half of the twentieth century. His successor in fame, Yo-Yo Ma
, recorded them twice. The version (Sony S2K 62302) I have is technically unsurpassed without lacking in soul — despite his dismal record at fostering a new generation of composers and works for the cello. This list no doubt overlooks more than a handful of deserving recordings: those by Starker
(three traversals), Fournier (not HIP) and Istomin (HIP) come quickly to mind.
Those new to these works may want to start out with the First Suite, or perhaps the Third: both are approachable and have engaging tunes and sturdy thematic backbones. The Second, by contrast, requires more time and very close attention, being fairly devoid of overtly appealing musical incident — perhaps supporting the legend that it’s Bach's lament on the death of his first wife. The Fifth is rich in mystery, not unlike the Sixth, the one requiring an extra string to accommodate the composer’s requirements.
Although Piovano was previously unknown to me, his set proved itself exemplary right away. The first thing of note is the demonstration-class recorded sound (by Laurence Heym): clear yet slightly dark, faintly resonant. It perfectly suits the cellist’s silky, poetic understatement.
If Piovano brings a stylistic agenda to the Cello Suites it’s that they are anything but solemn or monumental. Rather, he delivers them as music that is rich in a delicate grace. The first Bourrée of the Fourth Suite is played just so, yet with a jaw-dropping sense of motion. Bach’s fast-moving Gavottes are also brought resoundingly to life. At the same time, the Suites’ slow movements retain their momentum and never bog down. Motivic gestures are expressed naturally, their shapes vividly outlined, while downbeats and arrival points are never exaggerated or overcooked.
Anyone who regards solo cello music as “difficult” may reconsider after hearing, say, his take on Minuets 1 and 2 of the First Suite. Beyond the sewing-machine entrancements of their late-Baroque orderliness, both of these movements come alive with an infectious sprightliness that will captivate. Piovano always displays rhythmic assurance, momentum and communicative intensity.
Any eyebrow raised about these interpretations may be liable to fix on the Fifth Suite, especially its Sarabande, the fourth movement. In Piovano's hands, it broods at a slow, near-thick pace as he reaches for an intensity not plumbed, to these ears, by other versions. He clearly commands a tone robust enough to portray the music this way, although some may wonder if his take is to the movement's advantage, and if revelling in such depths could ever resonate as “right” for them. Others, however, will be intrigued to accompany him into the near-haunted solitude for which he strives.
For all his grace and poetry, this at least shows that Piovano does not gloss over the Suites’ depths. Above all, his are living, breathing interpretations that in no way suggest a glum, over-studied approach — and all is on display in lucid recorded sound.
Previous review: Guy Aron
Masterwork Index: Cello