Editions of the Bach Cello Suites transcribed for viola

January 27, 2019, 11:27 AM · For the past five years, I have been using Werner Icking's edition from IMSLP for a viola transcription of the cello suites. I am not completely happy with it. I assume some of you out there have bought other editions. Please let me know your experience with them, particularly if you have also used Icking's. Also, please let me know if any of the editions you have used purports to be an urtext (I am aware that the question of what constitutes an urtext of the cello suites is subject to some controversy because no autograph manuscript exists). Thanks so much for you input.

Replies (23)

January 27, 2019, 12:27 PM · Simon Rowland-Jones (Peters 7489)
Close to urtext, but with multiple solutions for Suites 5 & 6

Watson Forbes (Chester Music)
Much edited, but very musical. My favorite.
No 5 with standard tuning, up one fourth for No 6.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 12:40 PM · I have William Primrose's edition. The foreward material is fun to read. I don't really like the edition. I bought it for the notes. The edition I like is Valerie Arsenault's violin transcription, so when I want to play one of the pieces from Primrose's edition, I check Arsenault's edition for the bowings. Her bowings are very true to the manuscripts. Arsenault has only very few fingerings but the cello suites are much easier to figure out on your own than the violin solo S&P. I'm probably very biased because I'm accustomed to Arsenault's bowings and I like them.
January 27, 2019, 12:42 PM · Thanks. That's all helpful.
January 27, 2019, 1:04 PM · I have Rowland Jones' Peters Edition as well. I like the multiple soloutions to the later suites. Its also fairly easy to read
January 27, 2019, 1:16 PM · Thanks, Jake. Has anyone had any experience with the Schirmer or International Edition (Katmis) versions?
January 27, 2019, 1:27 PM · I concur with Jake's post.
January 27, 2019, 2:36 PM · I think it would be a lot more fun to transcribe the originals into the new clef yourself, and then watch (with video) a really good performance so you can decide upon your own bowings and dynamics and fingerings and whathaveyou.

I did that once, on the violin. I think it was a definitely a more rewarding experience.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 3:48 PM · My copy is Schirmer edited by Louis Svecenski. It is many years ago I got it, and I don't remember how I got it, there is no special reason why it is Schirmer. Could be that it was the edition available, but as I said I don't remember.

I have visited IMSLP frequently. There are many cello editions there including Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript. And there are violin and viola editions. Of special interest is Shin-Itchiro Yokoyama's work with the suites. His editorial notes are great.

I have especially persued the c-minor suite (number 5). In my version of the Schirmer edition there are some wrong notes here and there. I found IMSLP a very good resource in order to check out what is right.

The Schirmer edition does not include the scordatura notation, but it is OK since I haven't considered playing it that way.

In suite number 6 in the Schirmer edition the Sarabande is transposed to G-major since it is very ackward to play in D-major. It was originally composed for a 5-string instrument. You would need a 5-string viola with an E-string. Such an instrument is very rare. A friend of mine does have such a viola. He told told me it is hard to find an E-string that doesn't break because of the tension. E-strings are normally not made for viola size instruments.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 10:06 PM · My playing of the Bach Cello Suites on viola is largely informed by my having played them (at least I - IV plus the Saraband of V) on cello from 1950 to about 2007. My cello edition was the Schirmer publication edited by Frits Galliard (bought by me when publishers were neither ashamed nor hesitant to print a retail price on the front of the book - $1.25 on mine). The bowings were mostly OK with me and any complex cello fingerings you have to work out yourself, anyway. I don't recall if I have any other editions - I don't know why I would, since I can ignore editor's fingerings and bowings and inform my own playing from the dozens of recordings in my iTunes. Rostropovich had wonderful commentaries in his DVD. But if there is any performance that would inform the way I play these it is the recently issued recording of the viola performances by Kim Kashkashian. It is encouraging to find an artist of her stature agreeing with the way I have always heard these in my own "inner ear" and tried to make them sound.

The viola editions I have are the Schirmer edited by Louis Svecenski and the Virtual Sheet Muaic edition edited by Fabrizio Ferrari. I'm not partial to bowings in either edition. Viola fingerings do not present the same complexities as cello fingerings - but bowings in many cases may work better in the opposite direction. The way I want to play the Suites on viola is the way I play them on cello - also the way Kashkashian does - to the best of my ability, anyway!

January 27, 2019, 5:40 PM · Thanks to all who responded. This is very helpful to me.
January 27, 2019, 9:20 PM · Buy Watson Forbes and download the rest. I find it the most playable edition, especially for the last two- without having to deal with scordatura. If you’re performing it publicly, look at a more direct transcription if you prefer.
January 27, 2019, 11:12 PM · Since you know them well already, why don't you just read the Anna Magdalena and Kellner MS and decide for yourself where the slurs begin and end? They are all available for download at the Bach digital archiv website and of course IMSLP...

For suites 1–5, you're just really transposing at octave higher.

For suite 6, the Simon Rowland-Jones in Peter's Edition has a nice transcription in G major.

January 28, 2019, 7:40 AM · I agree with Adrian's recommendations. Simon-Rowland Jones for as close to urtext as you can get in a viola edition, and Watson Forbes for a very nicely and musically edited edition.
I do not recommend the Schirmer or International editions. Whenever I have students come in with those, I end up changing so many bowings you can hardly see the notes (obviously some people prefer these bowings, but I studied all of the suites from either Watson Forbes or Rowland Jones and can't stand them).
January 28, 2019, 8:02 AM · Edward/Dorian - Do both Rowland Jones and Forbes have versions for 5 and 6 that do not require me to do anything special? That is really what I am looking for; easily playable.
Edited: January 28, 2019, 3:28 PM · Rowland-Jones provides 2 versions of the 5th suite:
- a straight octave transposition, requiring lowering the A-string by one tone, and where A-string notes are written one tone higher (which makes my old brain overheat: I like to see the real pitches and add fingerings.)
- an adaptation for standard tuning, as in the Forbes edition; some nice resonances are lost, and the chords are more awkward (some higher positions) and their layout modified.

The 6th suite uses all 5 strings (i.e. an added high E).
- Rowland-Jones offers a straight octave transposition in D, sending the viola into the stratosphere (would best suit a 5-string viola!); plus another G major version as in the Forbes edition.
- Forbes chooses G major (up one 4th), so that we only "lose" the lowest string, which Bach had used the least. I feel this makes better tonal use of the viola.

Just found my copies of a French arrangement by Stéphane Weiner (éditions Gérard Billaudot) in 2 volumes.
The 5th suite expects the de-tuned A, but prints the notes as they sound. The 6th suite stays in the original D major, but tries to keep as much as possible to the original cello pîtch, so the "dislocations" occur in different places than in Forbes' or Rowland-Jones' G major solutions.

January 28, 2019, 11:59 AM · Thanks, Adrian. This is what I needed to know.
January 30, 2019, 5:08 PM · I'm partial to the Watson Forbes edited one as well (Chester Music) and agree that the 6th Suite in G Major makes sense on the viola.
January 30, 2019, 5:30 PM · The sixth suite is totally unsuited to the viola. Heaven knows it is also unsuited to the cello in its four-string format, except when performed by a very few of the elite. The burdens it places on the average cellist are just too grim, and he outcome of the struggle is predictable, while arousing Aristotelian terror and pity in the beholder and the listener. No, so far as the violist is concerned, it is imprudent to attempt it, for the results are usually deplorable. If many arbitrary and abrupt changes of register are to be avoided, the player has to ascend into the unforgiving upper reaches of the viola, an instrument meant for but brief forays into that region.
January 31, 2019, 1:20 PM · Aside from the heavily chorded Bourree movements, the 6th Suite is quite playable on the viola and as I said, works well in G. I wouldn't dream of playing it in D, though, without a 5-string instrument.
January 31, 2019, 5:00 PM · I arranged the Bourrées of the 6th suite for violin plus viola, in D major.
Best of both worlds!
January 31, 2019, 8:29 PM · I was quoting Primrose in my post above! He acknowledged that one solution is to play it in G.
February 1, 2019, 5:49 PM · I got the Rowland-Jones edition. I like it a lot. It is easily readable, in addition to the choices for ## 5 and 6. Thanks all.
Edited: February 4, 2019, 4:24 AM · On a related subject, I have arranged a number of gorgeous gamba works by Marin Marais, Sainte Colombe etc for viola. Here too I often transpose up one fourth, which uses the viola strings better than grumbling semiquavers on the C-string and awkward octave shifts in the middle of a passage. The highest strings of both instruments have a similar strident quality.
The second viol part I leave to a 'cello, or to a second viola if the two parts are equal.


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