Written in the second of Bach's 3 major compositional periods, along with such masterpieces as the violin sonatas and partitas and the Brandenburg concertos, the six suites for solo violincello give a beautifully complex and rich array of music to an instrument with otherwise fairly scarce solo repetoire. Each of the six suites has the same formal structure: a Prelude- usually by far the longest movement, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande - often with complicated double stops, followed by either a menuet, bourree or gavotte, and finally a gigue.

They represent an enormous body of work, taking over three hours to play in one sitting. They also represent a huge and neverending challenge for any cellist. Like so much of Bach's solo works for any instrument, the easier movements can be begun at an early stage, but some movements will be a source of stress for the rest of your life. The sixth suite in D Major, in particular, was written for a violincello piccolo, with five strings, and is a huge challenge to play well on a standard modern cello, with four. The Fifth suite in C Minor is also unusual, with the top A string being tuned down to a G to make playing in such a difficult key signature, full of A flats, a little easier. The fourth, in E Flat Major, is a challenge for its constant and rapid shifts and huge string crossings, particularly in the elegant prelude.

The first three suites, in G major, D minor and C major respectively, are comparatively easy, but can be extremely deceptive. Usually simple in rhythm and bowing, with simple key signatures and a lack of the thumb position work of the big shifts often found in later and ostentiably more difficult pieces, they can be initially learned rather easily, but then prove fiendishly difficult to play very well. The complex, mathematical developments so common in Bach and the constant and irregular shifts between strings mean that playing these pieces up to speed and with good tone quality requires a level of delicacy and balance in both hands that is only found in quite advanced cellists.

A classic example is my own experience with the famous Prelude to Suite 1, in particular the first four bars, which I have been playing for no less than two years, and still struggle to get perfectly even. I was about to give up in despair when my teacher said "Why do you think every recording you'll ever hear of this piece slows down very expressively and artistically in this bar? It's because NOBODY CAN PLAY IT." Absolutely typical Bach.

The Suites form a backbone for standard cello repetoire. You start learning them after about five years at the instrument, and you never stop learning them until you give up or die. They also provide a reliable test of skill - many a fool can play a big, Romantic solo convincingly, but playing a Bach prelude beautifully takes great skill. I believe a similar system is used by many pianists in assessing their peers.

In addition, it is a common experience among cellists that when the suites are mentioned to a random person, any response will be "Yo-Yo Ma!". Let it be said that it is the opinion of many cellists that the Yo-Yo Ma recording is mediocre, lacklustre, unadventurous, not particularly skillful, and often, dare we say it, boring. The most interesting and dynamic interpretation I have yet heard is by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelway, who I was fortunate enough to hear play all six suites live in Sydney two years ago. That performance was what gave me true enthusiasm for this great work.

What do we know about Bach's suites for solo 'cello? Frustratingly little, is the answer. We know only that he wrote them at Cöthen. For which performer? For which occasion? We can only speculate. It is possible, of course, that they exist merely as part of the huge body of wonderful instrumental music Bach wrote during this period. And what's going on with the sixth suite, written for a five-stringed instrument? A 'cello with an extra string added (possible) or a viola pomposa (probable)? History does not relate. What we do know, however, is that these suites are not just key to the solo cello repertoire, they are its cornerstone. On them and around them is everything else built. An understanding of them is critical not only in a specific sense but in a much broader and ultimately more important one: that of the development of the instrumentalist as a virtuosic soloist.

Like much of Bach's work, the suites received close to no recognition for many years. The Romantic movement, for example, disregarded their dry academic brilliance next to the warm and accessible texture they favoured. The cello itself was not fully recognised as a solo instrument for some time: inconceivable now to anyone who's heard any thing like Kodaly's Cello Sonata: totally assured in its use of the instrument and utterly confident in its validity as a solo medium. To be honest, I'm surprised no-one rated the cello as an soloist's intrument: the depth and sonority of its full and mellow tone, consistent even to the highest of registers, the way that its extraordinary range provides satisfying harmonies, and the number of ways to bow and finger the instrument make it not only a beautiful but an immensely versatile beast. Despite all this, the cello never got, say, the same limelight as that accorded to the violin, which has a relatively lengthy tradition of mainstream vistuosity. Maybe the cello fell victim to the following crux: great musicians won't choose an instrument with a small body of solo work, and similarly, no composer will write solo pieces for a repertoire that has no great musicians to play it. I suppose this impasse can only be broken by a player-composer like Boccherini, who certainly helped the cello's cause along.

Anyway, all this makes Bach's venture quite an audacious one: I can only assume that there was a specific virtuoso for whom Bach wrote this set of suites. Either that, or he had the good fortune to have a pool of talented cellists, in spite of the humble nature of his station. I don't know which idea I find more likely, but I'm swayed by my sensibilities to the former.

Even here, however, Bach does not endow his cellist with the same technical mastery accorded to violinists. Some of Bach's unaccompanied violin music is truly a sight to behold: I know this because I've beheld it, and it's truly a sight. Bah. I never was a very good violinist. Anyway. The Suites are limited in that they are just what they purport to be: a set of dances, the exception being the preludes, to which one cannot dance. There is only one fugue in the whole series, to be found in the fifth suite, where the prelude is actually a prelude and fugue. Despite the gravity and power of some of the preludes, for me the fourth and the six, they do not approach the wizardry required by the violin Sonatas or Suites. Instead the joy of these suites is an altogether less vulgar one: the utter poise of the music, the confidence with which Bach fully exploits the instrument without even resorting to pizzicato, the surpassing grace and elegance of the music. The cello suites are as sugared violets to the violin Sonatas' toffee fudge. Mmmmm ... Bach ... brain food.

Recordings of these abound, although I believe Yo-Yo Ma's recent recording was very highly esteemed by critics. These pieces are so fundemental to our conception of classical music that they are ubiquitous. Get them.


Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Menuet I
  6. Menuet II
  7. Gigue

Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
  1. Prelude
  2. Allemance
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Menuet I
  6. Menuet II
  7. Gigue
Suite No.3 in C major, BWV 1009
  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Bouree I
  6. Bouree II
  7. Gigue
Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010
  1. Preludium
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Bouree I
  6. Bouree II
  7. Gigue
Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011
  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Gavotte I
  6. Gavotte II
  7. Gigue
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012
  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Sarabande
  5. Gavotte I
  6. Gavotte II
  7. Gigue
Source: My cellist friends, and my own knowledge.
Txikwa says re Bach Cello Suites: Casals's original recordings are still _the_ definitive set.

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