Written by Eric Rasmussen on August 17, 2010.
J.S. Bach Suites for Cello
J.S. Bach was an incredibly prolific composer whose works have endured for centuries. There are over 6,000 recordings of Bach’s music by countless artists, many of whom have dedicated their lives to Bach or the Baroque style. Yet for some listeners, Bach’s music has the reputation of being mathematically perfect but musically stagnant.
Given the sheer volume of people that play his music, I’m willing to bet a good portion of those 6,000+ recordings are indeed mechanical and lifeless. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you see how crisp and clean the scores are, how rife with mathematical patterns and symmetry. But Bach didn’t write music to sit on a page looking pretty. It’s up to the artist to breathe life into it, adding ornamentation and improvisation, creating atmosphere, and infusing the music with spirit.
One such performer is Pablo Casals, whose legendary 1930’s recordings of the Cello Suites are as profound and invigorating today as they were in his own time. The digitally remastered two volumes (sold separately) feature the complete 6 Cello Suites, described in the liner notes as, respectively, Optimistic, Tragic, Heroic, Grandiose, Tempestuous, and Bucolic. They are works of poetry, brought to life by Pablo’s heartfelt playing and deep understanding of the music. His melodic phrasing dances and weaves with an energy and beauty all its own, respectful of the tempo and style, but expressed freely and in the moment.
The performance is all the more remarkable when you realize that the cello, often used to play one voice (a one line melody) at a time, is used here to full-effect playing independent voices. Imagine super-imposing two separate images upon one another in such a way that both images can be seen with clarity and independence, yet work together to create a whole, and you’ll get a sense of the magic at work here. If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about with Bach, or if you still believe the music is dry and lifeless, spend the next few minutes of your life tracking down Pablo Casals’s Suites for Cello volumes 1 & 2.