Falling in love with Bach's Cello Suites Again

May 4, 2010, 2:24 PM ·

I grew up listening to old vinyl recordings of Casals playing all six of Bach's Cello Suites.  To this day, I seem to recognize every note and every nuance of Casals' performances. 

As with many pieces of music I love, this one has some rich personal memories.  While I was battling my way through my divorce, I dated a fellow who was an outstanding amateur cellist.  In fact, I decided that I wanted to date him largely because I liked the way he played Bach on his cello.  He owned the Casals recordings on a 2 CD set, and I remember thinking that owning those CDs must be the ultimate luxury.  (My divorce lawyer was taking a large chunk of my salary at that time.)  I remember sitting with my friend in a sun filled breakfast nook in his home, eating, drinking coffee, listening to Casals' recordings, and not talking because we didn't need to.  I remember just once watching him shake his head and mutter, "...his phrasing."  He was right, of course.  I remembered my childhood violin teacher playing so many pieces with a phrasing similar to that of Casals playing Bach.  Casals influenced a couple of generations of string players in their overall phrasing.

When my divorce was finished and I had some expendable income, I bought the Casals CDs and later the CDs of Yo Yo Ma playing the same pieces.  The Casals recordings are the ones I've listened to the most since then.  I know that it's good to listen to different performances of a piece so that you don't get stuck in a rut, but, after all, these are Bach and this is Casals.

Lately I've been listening to my CDs over and over, sometimes with the score in the Suzuki book in front of me, scribbling down notes while I listen.  It's challenging and fun to try to figure out the cellists' bowings by listening to them and not watching them play.  Other things are easier to discern by ear.  For example, Ma plays the piece more quickly and playfully than Casals.  Ma also likes to add ornaments every time he repeats a passage.  He strongly favors double stops and chords.  Casals does something very interesting in the passage with a run of eighth notes in which every other note is an open string below the fingered notes.  This pattern is very common in fiddle tunes.  It's so much fun to play as a finger game that it's enjoyable even if you don't listen to how it sounds.  I kept listening and relistening to Casals play this passage and always had the feeling that he was playing drones instead of just alternating strings.  Suddenly I recognized what he was doing because I've heard it so often in fiddle tunes of different ethnicities.  Casals played the fingered notes with the open string beneath them, and he played the open string with the next lower open string as a drone.  Both Casals and Ma showed me the sense of some of the dynamics which seemed counterintuitive to me.  There are places where a brief decrescendo is followed immediately by a forte.  In Gavotte #2, there are several places where a grace note and double stop are played up bow, fp.  The next note is played down bow and piano, and that is followed by five staccato quarter notes, all played upbow.  The markings on the score did not make much sense to me, but the recordings showed me just how the music should sound and how small deviations from the expected can be quite beautiful.  

In the framework of those two pages in Suzuki, I've played around with all of the things I've described here.  They're all fun to play and to hear myself play.  I consider myself lucky that I can have so much fun with such small bits of music. 


May 4, 2010 at 09:38 PM ·

Hi, I agree the cello suites are just beautiful!!!  They have help me in a violin study that sound similar ; )  I'm a fan of Rostropovich's version but I know he might "rush" a bit  (but it's so powerful and resonant + the chord at the end is extraordinairy!)


May 5, 2010 at 05:41 AM ·

Anne-Marie, thanks for telling me about Rostropovich's playing of this piece.  I found it on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGfykyQ0_So) and listened to it several times.  His style is very different from that of both Casals and Ma.  He is, as you say, "powerful."  He uses double stops and chords frequently.  He observes the dynamics more than the other two cellists.  There are big differences between his pianos and his fortes.  I enjoyed watching his bowing and wished I could have seen more of it.  The written explanation about instrumentation on the site I referenced was interesting, too.  Some people believe that Bach wrote this piece for a 5-stringed cello.

May 5, 2010 at 10:45 AM ·

As a cellist (primarily) I cannot recommend Boris Pergamenshikow's CD of the Suites highly enough. He had great sense of phrasing, voicing, and ornamentation. Oddly enough, I find the initial Prelude the least satisfying, though...

Listen to samples at www.amazon.com/Bach-Suites-Cello-Johann-Sebastian/dp/B00000JNK6/ref=sr_1_7 

I enjoy playing the Suites on the viola nearly as much as on the cello, especially the 2nd, 4th and 5th (with scordatura, naturally!). They fit the viola tone very nicely.

Yes, the 6th Suite was written for violoncello piccolo (5 strings, one extra on top). Feeling adventurous? It's the one Suite that is closest to the Sonatas and Partitas.

Happy listening/playing!

May 5, 2010 at 01:32 PM ·


Have you already listened to Pierre Fournier's interpretation of the Bach cello suites ? This is the version I like most. I think  it is worth to have as many different versions of such a monumental work in our CD/DVD libraries as we can afford. There is also a DVD with Fournier playing the suites.

By the way, the DVD Rostropovich's version of the suites is very enlightening ... just before the performance of each one of the suites, he gives a small sort of a master class sitting at his piano (yes, he plays the piano as well !) explaining the spirit, context and structure of the particular suite he is about to perform on the cello.

Very interesting too, Andrés Segovia's own transcription for the guitar of the suite No.3 in C major is sublime ! 

As you may already know, there is a transcription of the six cello suites for the violin. I myself love to have fun playing some parts of them once in a while.


May 5, 2010 at 05:00 PM ·

Pauline what you noticed is true! Interesting!


May 5, 2010 at 07:17 PM ·

Thanks for your recommendations, everyone.  I'm now listening to Mischa Maisky playing the cello suites on youtube, and I like his playing very much.  I'll check out the other versions everyone has  recommended.  Manuel, I know and love Segovia's transcriptions and performances of many parts of Bach's Cello Suites.

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