Why Top Players Are Enticed by Bach's Solo Cello Suites
Bach's Solo Cello Suites rank among the most familiar etudes in the standard repertoire.
So why are top players drawn to these monumental works over and over again?
Kliegel, in contrast, is more down-to-earth: “It’s a daily bread for all of us; playing this is like putting on shoes, a sweater, pants, figuring out what fits together. It’s a matter of taste, of knowledge, and how things should sound. It took me 40 years to have in my own mind how I would like to have it sound.”
Other musicians may determine early on how they believe the music should sound, but fundamentally change their opinions over the years. Such is the case with Bagratuni. “All of the suites I learned at the Moscow Conservatory, but I’ve had to re-learn them or revisit them all the time,” he says. “When I came to the West, my point of view radically changed. I started getting involved with Baroque performance practice, but then I found out this was not the right path for me. It needs certain training; you can’t just take the cello and start playing Baroque style. You can play it the way you feel you must, but you have to respect that period’s performance practices. Plus, one thing was very clear: I am in the 21st century, and there is no way possible I could take myself back 300 years.”
This echoes comments Janos Starker wrote in the liner notes for his classic 1965 Mercury recording of the suites, recently reissued, the most acclaimed of the five cycles he recorded over his career. (Starker politely declined to be interviewed for this article, suggesting that we consult any of his 20 students—including Kliegel—who have recorded the suites, and look at his past writings on the subject, saying, “I have nothing to add.”)
In the 1960s, and, on the evidence of his later performances, for the rest of his career, Starker rejected the notion of “authentic” Bach performance. The cello suites’ performance tradition, he noted, “started almost 200 years after the works were conceived . . . and one can trace its origin to the artistic trend of the turn of the 20th century and thereafter.
“Any attempt to classify a performance of this music as a truly Bach presentation is futile and baseless,” he continued. “The equipment of the contemporaneous cello is quite different from that of those used in Bach’s time. The very fact that these works are performed today in a concert hall makes necessary completely different solutions. The changes in our mentality since the 18th century excludes the possibility of adopting the artistic motivations suggested by or assigned to Bach and his instrumentalists. So all the observable changes, whether they involve notes, ornaments, phrases, dynamics, or tempi, should be attributed to the personal expressive desire of each player, and the validity of each approach will rest solely on the communicative power of its deliverer.”
Ah, but is there a danger of injecting too much of the deliverer into the music? This is an issue to be considered in any performance, but it’s an especially vital topic for the Bach suites, since cellists regard them as almost holy writ.
Says Jian Wang, “It’s a give and take; put a lot of yourself in a performance, you might excite a large audience because most people are a bit lazy mentally and need vigorous amounts of stimulation, but you might antagonize a few who are thinking for themselves. If you let the music speak for itself, you might lose a lot of audience because they are used to being hit on their heads with personality, but the few who can hear the music speaking will think you are their soul mate for life.
“A truly successful performance is the one that lets the music speak and touches the majority of the audience.”
Bagratuni provides a gastronomic metaphor: “If there’s too much of oneself, it is like eating too much spicy food or too much sweet food. But every cellist who respects Bach’s music will know the boundaries, will know that thin line that stops you before you go too far.”
Kliegel remarks, “Putting on top of the music something that makes everybody say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a new thing’—this is what I hate, because this is not derived from the text. It’s not natural. Music, for me, is always something natural, something that comes from inside, not something that is imposed from outside. We are playing music written by someone else. The composition was there first, and we are second.
“We have an obligation to watch that.”
Given that obligation, how can Kliegel personalize a performance? “It’s like what I do with other music: how to shape it, how to use dynamic blocks, how to build a sequence,” she says. “How different fingerings change the line or the sonority, how I phrase the music, what colors I use, whether I play it more fat or more tender, that’s what I can bring to Bach, but that goes for other music, too.”
Kliegel’s description of how she personalizes the Bach suites tends to be technical; Jian Wang’s is more conceptual. “Since I was very young, I remember always being touched by sad stories,” he says. “I think by nature I am melancholic, so I think naturally my playing appeals to people who are melancholic. With the Bach cello suites, although I am aware they are based on dances, I hear something much more profound than just dances. In a few preludes and some slower dances, I feel they are nothing less than prayers.
“Even in the faster dances, I prefer to hear something more than a dance. I am convinced Bach used the dances as a platform to express his sense of beauty, balance, and order, and beyond.
“To think of these works merely as dance music is a waste and misses the point for me.”
Even though cellists begin playing these scores as children, most are compelled to return to the music again and again throughout their lives. Sometimes, it’s a matter of working at it until you finally feel you’ve almost gotten it right.
Kliegel, for example, initially played the suites in a more Romantic way, mainly because she was afraid of getting caught being insufficiently prepared in Baroque style. “When you go to competitions when you are younger,” she says, “you think, ‘This person’s on the jury, and he knows everything about Baroque style. He’ll know I’m not in the right style, I have to make trills from the higher notes; my God, I’m doing something wrong with it. I can’t even try this because I can’t make it authentic.’
“But fearing people would object to this or that made me study it even more. It drew me back to the music many, many times. And every time you perform it, some things you like, some things you don’t, and you change those. I’ve changed bowings and fingerings a thousand times over the years. I’ve tried so many things out that now I’m finally sure that’s the way I want to play the suites. Now it’s fantastic to be able to sit down and play them, because I finally have an opinion of what’s good for me and what’s not good for me. I don’t depend anymore on whether other people like it or not.”
What seems to draw cellists as diverse as Maria Kliegel, Yo-Yo Ma, Jian Wang, Janos Starker, and Suren Bagratuni to the Bach suites again and again is this: Although the music is regarded by turns as deeply spiritual or highly abstract or a manifestation of Bach’s unique personality, it’s nevertheless possible for each cellist to feel that the scores are his or her own private possessions.
Says Jian Wang, “We all have stories, experiences, and images we keep in us, the things we remember and think about when we need comfort, direction, and encouragement. So are the Bach cello suites for me musically. Every time I play the suites, I feel refreshed, organized, and, most importantly, touched.
“With these suites, a cellist can create a complete sonic world alone, without help from any other instruments. It is a challenge, but also an opportunity. Personally, they are like a home I carry with me in my heart.”