5 Minutes with Jean-Guihen Queyras
On Bach's Solo Cello Suite No. 6
I caught up with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras by phone from Paris a few days after he left the recent Piatigorsky International Cello Festival in Los Angeles, where he wowed the public and the music press with Haydn’s Cello Concerto, No.1, on opening night, and Bach’s Solo Cello Suite, No. 6, in D major on the all-star Bach Suites night.
How difficult is Bach’s Sixth Solo Cello Suite compared to the first five?
“It’s more technically challenging than the others, because of the five versus four strings. Once you are able to put your fingers on it, you should just go for it. Learning music is like learning a language: if you learn the Sixth Suite when you are 20 or 25, it won’t be as much a part of you as if you had learned it when you were a kid.
Tell me more about the four strings vs. five aspect.
I play the Sixth Suite on a conventional four-string cello, even though Bach wrote it for an experimental five-string instrument. You can hear the fine quality of the E string on recordings. In the concert hall, however, it’s problematic because the sound is much smaller. It’s also much more difficult, because of the finger board’s geometry, to focus on one string. There are ten chords that are unplayable on four strings, mainly in the Sarabande and the first Gavotte. But being grand is easier with four strings than five. Afterward, in the [rest of the] Sixth Suite, you are representing a string trio or quartet.
What advice can you offer on the voicing?
When you play, you are two persons at the same time, even if the notes you are playing belong to one chord. Voicing means that you attribute a quality of attack and intensity to each note depending on which “person” it belongs to. If you apply this to the very first bar of the Prelude, which consists of four groupings of three notes, you will hear that the middle note of each group is a resonant note—not part of the melody. The first note of the group stays on the D string and it is the third note that is [part of] the melody.
And the harmony?
Learning to identify the implied harmony is a second essential element of preparation. Sit at a piano and play the chords that you imagine are actually happening, even though they are not being played. Robert Schumann, who actually wrote out such an accompaniment, in a very romantic way, of course, for the Third Suite, could not imagine a melody without accompaniment, and neither should we. The harmony tells you the character of things, and this character you then can reflect in the sound.
What does a cellist need to know about the ornaments?
The ornaments are a little bit like vibrato, another way to modulate the sound, to let the music be more exciting, or more relaxed. They illustrate the way the harmonic progression goes and the sound changes. But be careful about ornamenting a lot, especially in the later Suites, in which the ornaments are written out. In the fast movements, most of the times you don’t need them at all.
The dance and pulse of the Suite also seem to be quite important.
You need to really feel the pulse, the groove that is in the music. Check out [different videotaped performances on] YouTube to see what the actual steps of gavottes and sarabands are. You will see how freely Bach plays around with pulse and rhythm. Overall, Bach’s notes are a life journey in which attention to detail makes a crucial difference to flow and emotion. The audience may not know, but the performer must.
Watch a video of Jean-Guihen Queyras performing the Bach Cello Suites at YouTube.com.