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.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

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.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

February 26, 2018
· Song of the Day (58 more)
· Arts (11 fragments)
· · Music (95 fragments)
· · · 5 Stars (92 more)

By .

I am an employee
of, but
the opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.