Bach Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009

performed by Steven Isserlis, or in a nice (if not slightly resonant) performance below by Jean-Guihen Queyras

(cover image from here, photographed by Alex Markovich)
Back to Bach. Also, it’s May now, so hop down below to see what that means for the blog.

I’d originally been intending to burn through all six suites in three weekends, but decided against it. There’s no need to rush, and in the interim, I was able to hear the pieces live for the first time. I thought, then, that it would be fitting to wait until after that to continue with my trying to talk about the pieces here.

During Reinhold Friedrich’s encore with the pianist last night, a work I’m not aware of, but that was a vibrant, unique, ornate sound, one

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” — Elvis Costello

or perhaps more elegantly,

There is nothing more difficult than talking about music.
-Camille Saint-Saens

That being said, I shall continue to try. What’s the purpose of this article, or any of these, then? Well, to be honest (as I’ve probably said before), I found these suites slightly intimidating. While it’s not a ton of music, it actually kind of is: six suites on an average of about 2o minutes each, nearly identical in form, with one person and one instrument, so there was some question to me, or some doubt that I as a listener could listen to some portion of a suite and say “Oh, yeah, that’s the (some dance) from suite no. X,” and while I maybe couldn’t play ‘name that tune’ with the Bach suites, I would get pretty close.

After the D minor second suite, we’re back to the bright key of C major. The prelude begins with a giant downward two-octave run from the C above the staff to that below it, like a sigh and a huge hug given by a friend who hasn’t seen you in a long time. I know, narratological stuff not welcome, and you’ll (or I’ll) never be able to communicate the proper emotion by describing the piece, so you must listen.

The prelude is an example, I think, of Bach’s genius. Even just looking at this section of music, only two pages on my Barenreiter score and three-and-a-half minutes played by Isserlis, it looks like scales for long stretches. But why is it so darn beautiful? There’s detail and beauty woven into those sixteenth notes, an art that touches professional cellist and amateur audience member alike. There’s none of the tragedy of the second; the weather has cleared and we’ve returned to the warm sun on our backs, intricacy and virtuosic detail, reaching the lowest (few) note(s) on the cello, referred to by some as pedal points upon which the work rests, and finishes with huge stopped chords bar after bar before ending quite splendidly. James Liu at AllMusic states that Pablo Casals, arguably the greatest proponent of these works, “found in [the third] a heroic quality.” I can see that.

The Allemande isn’t far removed from this idea, but has brisker upbeats and the regular use of 32nd notes makes it feel ‘faster’ or more lively. This must be one of the most spirited, dance-like movements of all the suites so far (or at all). Double stops on certain notes emphasize harmonic elements, and trills accent and ornament. The second part of the work begins a fifth higher, creating what is to my ear an even higher degree of joy and optimism in this section.

That’s not to say the Courante isn’t lively or exciting. It’s got some more forward motion in a way that at times borders on nervous, but is still bright. It has none of the (marked?) ornamentation or double or triple stops of the previous movements, with the result that the focus ends up being clearly pristinely and transparently on the melodic line Bach has given us. It’s also almost all eighth notes (with the exception of a few sixteenth notes and final minims), but is also a delicious movement.

But there has to be contrast, right? The sarabande gives us a chance to slow down, rest even, and relish something a little bit richer and slower. What you’ll mostly be enjoying is triple and quadruple stops “that offer the cellist plenty of room for gutsy expressiveness and at the same time outline the implied polyphony that so fascinates those who hear these works,” says Liu. Sarabandes are slow, and while the music takes up only a half a page, it’s the longest in performance (at least for Isserlis), and is a well-placed slow section before what comes next.

We have not here a minuet, but a Bourrée, or a pair of them, “for the galant element.” This first Bourrée might be my favorite of everything in the suites, if one were to pluck a section of it out like that. It’s spirited, bold, carefree, but also ‘heroic’ and moving. In contrast, the second (central) Bourrée is short but gives us additional contrast by being unabashedly darker, a more mellow expression for the work. Contrast is important, and even the expressiveness of this passage is more subdued, before the first section wonderfully returns. Liu says “These reinforce the sense of buoyant optimism that pervades the work, though a sudden minor-key turn in the second Bourrée reminds us that no triumph is ever complete.”

Finally, the Gigue. Liu describes it as light and bouncy. While it is that, I also find it to be the most virtuosic sounding, and some of the repeated notes and textures are entirely unique to this movement in the suite, it’s expressive, and has a certain powerful, almost furious intensity that’s a commanding way to end the work.

There. Did I do it? I said words about Bach. Liu comments that this third suite is “perhaps the most idiomatic to the cello of all six suites,” and it might also be my favorite. The approachability and instant I-get-it-ness of the work is effective, no matter on what level the listener gets it. It’s generally bright and sunny, has an overall ‘feel’, but not without its contrasts, full of detail at every level (the depths of which I obviously haven’t plumbed here), and an exquisite piece to hear live.

This puts us halfway through the cello suites, but I think of them in pairs. 1 and 2 are contrasting works, 3 and 4 are more complimentary, the ones with the Bourrées, and five and six are unique in their own ways. That’s it for now.

Like I said at the top, it’s May. We started a five-week-ish stretch of piano works, starting with Beethoven and ending with Schoenberg. It’s a new month, and we’re moving back to symphonies. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be giving some serious attention to Haydn, then Mozart the following week, on and on, until July, where we’ll be doing something very special, I think, but still German-heavy, as will be August, but also in a special way, and then that’s it for German-speaking composers for the rest of the year, likely. There’s lots and lots of other stuff to give attention to aside form Mendelssohn and Brahms Mozart and Haydn all the time. I mean, they’re great and all, but we’ll be looking at some other stuff too, so stay tuned.

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