BY WILLIAM H. YOUNGREN
FOR MOST LISTENERS, the six Bach suites for unaccompanied cello (BWV 1007-12) are indissolubly linked with the name of the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. Throughout the nineteenth century, so runs the familiar story, the suites were regarded as mere etudes. But then, in about 1890, the young Casals discovered a copy of them in a Barcelona music shop. After studying them in private for twelve years, he at last performed them publicly, and his performances came as a revelation to the musical world. Suddenly the suites began to be taken seriously—very seriously, indeed—and Casals’s famous recordings, made in 1936-1939 (and available now on Angel CB 3786), firmly established them in the canon of Bach’s greatest and most profound works. The musicologist Karl Geiringer expressed the consensus that still prevails when, in 1954, he wrote that the cello suites “count among the most powerful creations of [Bach’s] genius,” and that in them he reached “a lonely peak of grandeur to which for a long time nobody dared follow him.”
Yet despite the undoubted greatness of Casals’s recorded performances, and of the cello suites themselves, the familiar story demands qualification. Casals, quite understandably, saw his interpretation of the suites as simply and timelessly right, the result of his having torn down the barrier erected between us and the real Bach by centuries of ignorance and pedantry. “The Bach at that time,” Casals once said, “was played like an exercise, without any real musical meaning. . . . Bach was thought of as a professor who knew very well his counterpoint and fugue— and nothing else.” But it was surely not this professorial Bach who exerted so powerful an influence on Mendelssohn, Schumann, and the other Romantics; and if Schumann had thought the cello suites were merely exercises, he would scarcely have bothered to compose piano accompaniments for them. In the 1870s, Bach’s biographer Philipp Spitta wrote glowingly of the suites’ “beauty and . . . serene grandeur”; and Bernard Shaw, writing in the London of the 1890s, spoke of “our unquenchable appetite for Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann,” and made it clear that what marred most contemporary Bach performances was the overly reverent, almost sanctimonious attitude toward him cultivated by the Romantics and codified in Spitta’s biography.
The truth is that Casals, far from being the rebel that he made himself out to be, was simply carrying on the highest nineteenth-century tradition of Bach idolatry, by applying to the cello suites the interpretative approach that had already won listeners for the great choral works and the more imposing of the cantatas. Having seen that the suites were great music, Casals unhesitatingly concluded that they must be played as deeply profound music in the late-Beethoven vein, in the style that had been developed for the Romantic and post-Romantic cello repertoire, beginning perhaps with Beethoven’s Opus 102 sonatas. It is surely late Beethoven and the Romantics whom Geiringer has in mind when he alludes to those later composers who at last joined Bach on his “lonely peak of grandeur.”
Thus, almost every movement of the suites, in Casals’s hands, vividly projects the image of a powerful Romantic sensibility engaged in an unceasing, heroic struggle with itself and with the universe. He declaims the slower preludes and dances nobly and freely, with great variation in tempo and dynamics, phrasing in long, powerful arcs; his low register is intense and gutsy, and he seizes upon virtually every descent to the C string as an opportunity to make a rhetorical point; his high register is thick and sumptuous, colored by almost constant vibrato and occasional portamento; and he often grinds out Bach’s frequent, difficult doubleand tripleand even quadruple-stops insistently and almost unattractively, as if to flaunt his triumph over music that so goes against the grain of the cello. Naturally, Casals plays the faster preludes and dances with a steadier beat and a somewhat lighter touch; but they are still highly charged with drama and occasionally hectic in their gaiety.
So great is the dramatic and rhetorical power of Casals’s playing that one almost forgets that these are, after all, suites made up of dances from the eighteenth and earlier centuries. While many of the dances, especially the slower ones, lend themselves surprisingly well to Casals’s approach, the rest are worlds away from the spirit of Faustian striving that pervades his performances. In his excellent book Casals and the Art of Interpretation, David Blum reports that Casals, in teaching the suites, stressed their dance origins and also the great variety within and among them. Yet the relentless imposition of so purely Romantic a style on the music served both to obscure its origins and to diminish its variety. Listening to Casals, not only do we forget we are listening to dances but suites in major and minor keys, slow and fast movements, all seem cut from the same cloth. That Casals could have made his interpretation of the cello suites as convincing as he did is a tribute to his peerless artistry. But in the past forty years we have learned much about baroque style and performance practice. Superb recent recordings of Bach and his contemporaries, which have utilized this knowledge—recordings such as those by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna, for example—have transformed our view of a great deal of baroque music. But no recording had done this for the Bach cello suites. Now there is one. It is by the brilliant Dutch cellist Anner Bijlsma, and its appearance is an event of the greatest importance to music-lovers. (This recording is available here on German RCA RL 30369 and on Pro Arte 3 PAL 3000.) Bijlsma’s performances come as a breath of fresh air. He has returned the cello suites to their proper century and restored their enchanting variety. Having learned from Casals that they are great music, we can now see more clearly just what sort of great music they are. I think this new recording will be definitive for many years.
Bijlsma, as we should expect, uses restored period instruments: he plays Suites Nos. 1 through 5 on a 1699 cello by the famous Venetian maker Goffriller, and No. 6, which calls for an additional high E string, on a five-string violoncello piccolo dating from about the same time. But the differences between his performances and Casals’s depend as much on Bijlsma’s more historically accurate conception of the suites as on the authenticity of his instruments.
A listener acquainted with Casals’s recordings will perhaps be struck first by Bijlsma’s greater transparency of sound and incisiveness of attack. In the slower movements he is no less noble than Casals, and is at times very free with the tempo, but he keeps us always conscious of the beat, reinforcing our sense of rhythmic steadiness by his light, détaché bowing, which leaves plenty of space between notes and thus creates an air of ceremonial measuredness; he tends to touch the low notes lightly and casually, so that instead of becoming foci of rhetorical power (as with Casals), they are heard as gentle reminders of the continuo that we are intended to think of as implicit throughout; his high register is clear, radiant, and penetratingly viol-like; and he tosses off the doubleand tripleand quadruple-stops effortlessly, as ornaments, rather than insisting upon them. In the faster movements he achieves an easy grace, a simplicity and joyousness, that Casals does not even attempt.
Everything Bijlsma does accords perfectly with what we have learned from recent scholarship. Yet there is nothing academic about his performances—as there is, surprisingly, about the rather staid and businesslike ones that Harnoncourt recorded a few years ago (French Harmonia Mundi HM 381-83). Listening to Bijlsma, one’s main impression is not of authenticity or correctness but of life, spontaneity, inevitable rightness. Several pieces make sense that never did before. The stately Allemande of Suite No. 6, for example, is so musclebound and contorted in Casals’s performance that it has always seemed a mere heaping of one powerful phrase upon another; but Bijlsma lets the music breathe, and everything falls into place. Other pieces make better sense than ever before. Bijlsma plays the marvelous, grief-stricken Sarabande of No. 5, which Casals once said he thought of as depicting Christ’s journey to Golgotha, absolutely deadpan, creating a devastating sense of loss and a moonscape emptiness that make Casals’s performance, fine as it is, seem faintly vulgar in its dramatic intensity.
Despite the obvious power and beauty and intelligence of Casals’s recordings, I always found them exhausting to listen to—as I do not, for example, his pre-war recordings of the Beethoven Opus 102 sonatas. I now see that what exhausted me was the strain of hearing a style that was perfectly appropriate to late Beethoven inappropriately applied to Bach. (I would also hazard a guess that a similar sense of inappropriateness is responsible for the distinguished critic B. H. Haggin’s perverse and puzzling opinion, frequently expressed over the past forty years, that “the life which these works have on these records is the life created by the coloring, the movement, the tensions of Casals’ phrasing,” and that the suites themselves are not “great or enjoyable or interesting.”) With Bijlsma, the strain is gone. Casals made us constantly aware that the old dance forms were coming to us through the mediation of a powerful Romantic sensibility; Bijlsma sets the forms themselves before us— though, of course, we are aware that they are being handled by a master composer. As Bijlsma plays them, the cello suites are, like the finest poetry of Horace and Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, conventional—in the highest sense of that word. We are no longer tempted to think of the Bach who composed them as a Romantic alone on his mountain peak; he is, rather, a superb craftsman, so thoroughly immersed in the familiar expressive forms of his age, and so much a master of his craft, as to be able to transmute those forms into high art. To enlarge and enrich our sense of the past as Bijlsma has done in this recording is perhaps the most important and most difficult task of the interpretative musical artist.