performed by Steven Isserlis, or below (in full) by Maurice Gendron
So here we are for the second of our installments of the Bach cello suites.
If you haven’t yet listened to the awesome third episode of the podcast with cellist Richard Narroway, go do that now. He talks very intelligently but simply about these suites, and I could have listened to him for another hour.
Basically, they’re just dances, pure and simple. But the purity is stunningly, captivatingly, mesmerizingly beautiful. I was happy to hear Narroway say that he doesn’t much care for people ‘reading into’ these works or ascribing to them any “narratological” ideas, because it’s unlikely that’s what Bach meant. Baroque era and all.
But to my point yesterday or the day before, if you’re wondering how masses of etude-like nonstop notes can sound different from any other mass of nonstop notes, the contrast between the first and second suites should be clear enough.
In the “narratological” category, one could say something about the first suite being bright and sunny and generally cheery, but like life in general, it has its dark spots, like the second minuet, but that’s not a program of any kind Bach intended, and it’s a bit cliché. (Not only is there no program, there aren’t even autograph scores or performance notes in existence. Remember, it’s just music.)
But people tend to graft their own emotional programs or agendas or thoughts onto a piece, or ‘visualize’ something, and that’s fine. Cool. Emotional responses are welcome. Let’s listen.
The suite, unlike the first in sunny G major, is in D minor. You can hear it. Again, the prelude does a fine job as an introduction. It’s longer than the prelude of the first suite, and remember (if I recall correctly) none of the preludes have any repeats, so it’s played straight through. These shall not be happy dances, but even in the prelude there are glimpses of major-key stuff. Solemn, dark, melancholy, mournful, passionate, but without any of the really overt gushy emotionalism of eras yet to come.
You might remember some of the specific qualities of the different dances from the first suite. After the prelude comes the Allemande, and even this minor-key dance in the second suite is lively, almost getting out from under the minor-key grey cloud for glimpses of a major key.
It’s nothing like the furious Courante. While the Courante from the first suite was polite and had a pleasant dance-like infectious meter, this seems a far angrier, stormier affair, but again, even it has its swathes that suggest major keys. It’s an intense movement, a nonstop adventure that might be tiring for the audience as well as the performer.
The Sarabande, if you remember, is slower, much slower, and it takes on a heartbreaking, dirge-like voice in this suite. It gives one pause, quiets a room, provokes thought and attention. After two livelier dances, the solemn, serious nature of the prelude returns for the central and longest movement of the suite.
There’s a certain seriousness, confidence, assertion to the minuet, also in D minor, that’s a different kind of intensity from the frenzy of the Courante or the solemnity of the Sarabande. This one is serious, but only the first one. In the second minuet, we have a short but sweet D major second minuet, a well-placed point of contrast, not just to the minuet that comes first, but a little breath of fresh air in this entire work.
While we haven’t moved into a major key, the Gigue has a certain “uplifting” nature, or at least more positive than the other more serious dances. The rhythms in this movement are infectious, strong, a sort of pulsating or “rocking” that gives the movement power. The virtuosity of the is also breathtaking, so the ultimate effect is a deep one, almost spiritual, and a suitable end to the second suite, not a woe-is-me dramatic mourning thing, but a serious minor key finish to a deeply moving, thought provoking work.
Basically… get into a comfortable place, somewhere you can sit and not fidget for 18 minutes, get a pair of good headphones, and just listen. Closely. By the end, it seems an amazement that this entire sound world was created with a bow, ten fingers and four strings. That is the beauty of these works.
I feel completely incompetent to talk about them, but there are four more to go, which we’ll get around to in the next few months.