The Cello Suites by J. S. Bach • My interpretation of the Bach’s Cello Suites • Suite Nr. 1 • Suite Nr. 2 • Suite Nr. 3 • Suite Nr. 4 • Suite Nr. 5 • Suite Nr. 6
The Six Suites for solo Cello that make up this double album were written by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1717-1723 for Christian Ferdinand Abel, a colleague in the Köthen ensemble and a Viola da gamba player, who had decided to learn violoncello. In order to raise Abel’s technical standards, the Suites were composed in the style of today’s études, progressing from simple to difficult. The didactic aspect of these brilliant compositions proved so confusing for later generations of musicians that the score was long considered a set of technical exercises. It took some time for the world to discover the real depth of the Suites, despite the fact that in 1852 Robert Schumann tried to bring them centre stage by composing a piano accompaniment. In 1889, Spanish virtuoso Pablo Casals learnt of the Suites, and was so fascinated that he devoted an incredible twelve years to their study. In 1901, he gave his first performance of them in Barcelona and went on to introduce them to international audiences. The Suites are recognized today as the pinnacle of the violoncello oeuvre.
My journey through the deeps of Bach’s music began in childhood. Miroslav Doležil, my violoncello teacher at primary school, was a student of Bohuš Heran, himself an ardent admirer and performer of Bach. At a time when Pablo Casals’ recordings of Bach were regarded as without peer, my teacher arrived at a different style of performing them, and in order to communicate it fully to me presented me with home-made tapes of Pablo Casals and János Starker. The object of the exercise was to let me see that Casals’s recordings were obsolete, and to steer me towards a more modern approach. The result, however, was just the opposite. While the warmth and imagination of Casals captivated me, the second tape struck my adolescent soul as cold and senseless and I could not listen to it. My older sister later discovered the Casals tape and thought it was a recording I had made of myself. She commented: “You’re playing that Bach well, but out of tune.”
Although I didn’t choose a career straight after elementary school, and played the local folk scene when I was at grammar school, I practiced Bach’s Suites at home from time to time. I once took my violoncello to a folk concert and, hardly surprisingly, I was asked to play something. I therefore kicked off with what was closest to me – Bach’s Suite Nr. 1 in G major. The interest that this composition inspired in my companions (otherwise absolutely untouched by serious music) and my own feeling of success, surprised and touched me so deeply that they provided the final push to enroll at the conservatory, something that I would have refused to do a few years before. I was seventeen at the time.
Later, once my school studies were over, I included Bach’s Suites in my solo concerts whenever circumstances allowed. I don’t know how many interpretations of them I have done (it probably runs to three figures rather than two), but one of them was especially important – a concert with the German cembalist Barbara Maria Willi in 1995. As part of the program, I introduced the Suite No 1 in G major. In the audience was Prof. Dr. Jürgen Costede, President of the Deutsche Musikinstrumentenstiftung, an organization dedicated to period instruments based in Göttingen, himself eminent and recognized in the field of stringed instruments and well-known for his exceptional feel for them and audio recordings of them. My performance left such a deep impression on him that, after some time had passed, the thought occurred to him of recording a Suite with me – the one he had heard at the concert. The recording was made in 1997 in the Cathedral of the Order of St. Paul in Vranov u Brna and I played my own violoncello which was made by Adam Emanuel Homolka in 1842. This recording was soon to be joined by others as, over the years, the idea of recording more Suites with me, each interpreted in a different place with a different instrument, crystallized. In 2000, we completed a recording of the Suite No. 5 in C minor in the Romanesque church of the Bursfelde monastery. It was played on an instrument made by Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo (fecit / Anno 1774 / Armi di Palermo). The third in the sequence, the Suite No. 3 in C major, was recorded the following year in Santini’s church at Zelená hora, near Žďár nad Sázavou, performed on an instrument by Carlo Tononi Bolognese (Fece in Venezia /A: 1728). The last two instruments were loaned by the Deutsche Musikinstrumentenstiftung. In 2002, the recordings were put together and released by Gnosis.
The CD of Bach’s Suites was very well received (the first release sold out, as did the next), which encouraged us to continue with the remaining three. Prof. Costede chose the acoustics of the Bursfelde monastery as he considered the place most suitable; it was also close to his house in Göttingen. The hospitality of Prof. Costede and his wife Sabina played an important part in the overall atmosphere, and also of the recordings.
An overview of the individual recordings, arranged by the catalogue number of each suite, appears below. All the instruments, apart from my own (Suite No. 1 G major), were loaned by the Deutsche Musik-instrumentenstiftung.
SUITE Nr. 1 G MAJOR, BWV 1007 ↑ Page Up ↑
This Suite was performed on my own instrument, made by Adam Emanuel Homolka (Anno 1842 Op. 20), tuned to chamber “A” at 415 Hz and using a bow made in the Fretschner workshop. It was recorded on 17 March 1997 in the Minor Brothers Church in Vranov u Brna. I held the instrument in position without using a point, the use of which was only promoted by violoncellist Jules Delsart in the 1880’s.
SUITE Nr. 2 D MINOR, BWV 1008 ↑ Page Up ↑
This Suite was recorded on the evening of 26 September 2007 on a Giuseppe Ceruti instrument (me fecit / Cremone 1808). It is probably the only instrument dating to classicist times that I have ever played. In my quest to get close to its nature (a world new to me at the time), I chose a bow from Bach’s times, lent to me by a Dutch colleague fifteen years ago. I would like to thank him for not asking for it back and thus inadvertently “sponsoring” many of my concerts and recordings. The older type of bow significantly enhances clear articulation, helping listeners find their way around the complex network of Bach’s counterpoint. I tuned the violoncello to chamber “A” at 442 Hz. I held the instrument in position without using a point.
SUITE Nr. 3 C MAJOR, BWV 1009 ↑ Page Up ↑
For the first CD edition of Bach’s Suites in 2002, it was recorded in Žďár nad Sázavou in 2001 and then, for acoustic reasons, replaced for this album by a 2013 recording (June 25) made in Bursfelde on an anonymous instrument (early 19th century), in the modern holding position for the instrument, with its point on the floor, tuned to chamber “A” at 442 Hz and using my own bow, made in the Milan Oubrecht workshop.
SUITE Nr. 4 ES MAJOR, BWV 1010 ↑ Page Up ↑
Suite Nr. 4 was recorded on the evening of 17 and 18 August 2009. The instrument – a Giuseppe Ceruti (me fecit / Cremone 1808) – hold and bow were identical with those for the Suite No. 2 in D minor. I tuned the violoncello to chamber “A” at 415 Hz. Two years later on the evening of 26 June 2013 I made new version of the first movement of Suite No. 4 (Preludium). I tuned the A-string to B flat and D-string to E flat, i.e. I used the different notes from a normal tuning (so called scordatura). This new combination of open harmonic strings provides the cello with an impressive timbre, especially when played in the lower positions. The achievement of this timbre was the real impetus for the baroque scordaturas. I played this new version of Preludium on a Carlo Tononi instrument (fece in Venezia / A: 1728), in position without using a point, tuned to chamber “A” at 415 Hz and using a bow from Bach’s times.
SUITE Nr. 5 C MINOR, BWV 1011 ↑ Page Up ↑
Suite Nr. 5 was recorded on the evening of 28 May 2000 on a Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo instrument (fecit / Anno 1774 / Armi di Palermo). The hold and bow were identical with those for the Suite No. 2 in D minor and the Suite No. 4 in E-flat major. I tuned the violoncello to chamber “A” at 442 Hz, while observing Bach’s scordatura in which the A-string is tuned to G, i.e. a whole tone lower.
SUITE Nr. 6 D MAJOR, BWV 1012 ↑ Page Up ↑
Suite Nr. 6 was composed for a violoncello with five strings, the violoncello piccolo, which featured an E-string above the usual C, G, D and A. Although the origin of the instrument was long attributed to Bach, this has never been reliably proven. The composition, recorded on the evenings of 25 and 26 June 2013, presents a major challenge for players of the classic four-string violoncello – the absence of an E-string makes the fingering very difficult and it is only made possible by the use of the thumb position, unknown in Bach’s time (the thumb position was only developed 150 years later by Luigi Boccherini in his concerts and compositions). I played Suite No. 6 on a Carlo Tononi instrument (fece in Venezia / A: 1728), in the modern holding position for the instrument, with its point on the floor, tuned to chamber “A” at 442 Hz and using my own bow, made in the Milan Oubrecht workshop.
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