Today features the first artist to make a return Song-of-the-Day appearance: J.S. Bach. The music is the Cello Suite #5, a showpiece for basically every cellist who’s ever performed, and an object of study for every serious student who gets a couple of years into the instrument.

Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript of the suites

Cover page of the manuscript of the Suites by
Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife.

The cello suites were written sometime around 1720; each has six parts, adding up to something over twenty minutes of music. So they’re long, and almost unbearably intense, so you don’t usually hear them all at once, although Rostropovich apparently played them all night in 1989 at the fall of the Berlin Wall - there’s a brief video. When Yo-Yo Ma played them all in one Proms concert in 2015, that was regarded as heroic.

I attended a Rostropovich concert sometime last century, and his closing encore was the Sarabande from Suite #2; I wept like a baby.

Suite #5 Gigue manuscript

The Gigue starts partway down the page.

All the suites have a lot to offer, but #5 maybe the most. I’m not going to ask you to squeeze 20+ minutes of solo cello into your day, so for a brief taste I’m recommending the closing Gigue, which is only two minutes and a bit. If you want a bigger bite, the opening Preludium is seven minutes or so, and is terrific; a mini-symphony with fast and slow, loud and soft, cool and passionate. Controversially, I’m not starting with the Sarabande, which many have said to be a Bach pinnacle (Yo-Yo Ma played it at the consecration of the 9/11 site New York while they read the names of the dead), and so does Rostropovich in the link above). Maybe I’m weird, but it’s always felt a little lightweight to me.

Suite #5 Prelude manuscript

The Preludium manuscript.

Now, since every cellist you’ve never heard of has recorded the Suites, which one should you listen to? This turns out to matter, since Bach left a lot, really a lot, up to the performer, so there’s endless room to decide where to lean in, where to leave space between the notes, where to speed up, and so on. No cellist has ever played them exactly as recorded, as far as I can tell.

The two biggest names in cello, I guess, would be Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich, although the cognoscenti will murmer about Starker, Tortelier, Schiff, and of course Matt Haimovitz is the cellist for our times.

Bach Suite #5, Tortelier edition

My own copy of the Gigue, edited by Tortelier,
with some of my own chicken-scratches.

I’m the worst kind of Bach fanboy and I have, well, more than just one or two versions, but there are lots of famous ones I’ve never heard. Now, I’m not particularly a fan of Yo-Yo Ma; his tone is so beautiful that he sometimes relaxes a bit and tries to let it carry the load. Having said that, I think he totally slam-dunks #5 on his 1983 recording, getting musically-intelligent use out of his tone. But my favorite has long been this recording by Nathaniel Rosen, a not-so-famous cellist who I think just digs deeper into the music than anyone else. Unfortunately it seems to be out-of-print, as I write Amazon only has a used CD from $140. So if you see it in a remainder bin, snap up it up and play it at your next party; everyone will admire your good taste. Because of the nature of the music I have to recommend more than one, so for a very different take, check out János Starker; the recording is a bit distant and the tone doesn’t compare to Ma’s, but he brings a lot of personality and is rhythmically stronger; after all, these are supposed to be dance pieces.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links · Spotify playlist. The Gigue by Ma on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. The Preludium by Ma on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon. The Gigue by Starker on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. The Preludium by Starker on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon. There’s loads of live video; you could do worse than Stéphane Tétreault playing the Preludium, Sarabande, and Gigue at the Tchaikovsky competition. Here’s Yo-Yo Ma at the 2015 Proms; it starts with the Prelude and the Gigue is at 23:25. I think he takes it maybe a little slow. I can’t find any live video of Starker.


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From: Paul Clapham (Feb 26 2018, at 12:00)

Not only has every cellist and his dog played the Bach suites; when we were in Bodø, Norway, a few years ago there was a music festival happening. And one of the events was the suites being played on the carillon outside the Domkirke.

That was rather a surreal experience, as our daughter played them on the cello too when she was younger.


From: Charles (Feb 26 2018, at 14:58)

I recently discovered Jitka Vlasankova. Her recording of the Cello Suites is astonishing - ethereal and unworldly. The way her cello speaks is unlike anything I've ever heard. Well worth a listen.


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