Bach Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat, BWV 1010

performed by Steven Isserlis, or below by Rostropovich


(Is it sacrilege to say I don’t like M-Rost’s Bach? As I have discussed below, I have gotten very attached and used to Isserlis’ readings of these works, as new a recording as it may be, but… Rostropovich is kind of a god of the cello, so… while I didn’t find any YouTube versions I liked very much, this one will have to do. Apologies.)

There’s not much written about the fourth suite on Wikipedia, but it baffles me a bit that these pieces don’t each each have their own individual articles, for as popular and enduring as they are. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We know precious little about the composition of these works, and what we do know seems to apply universally to the six (or first five, at least) rather than each work having its own genesis and individual story. It very well may, but we don’t really know it, it seems.

In any case, no. 4 is also in a major key. I thought of 1 and 2 as great contrasts to each other, bright and sunny and then dark and really pensive, almost foreboding. But three and four are both in major keys, the fourth being considered “one of the most technically demanding of the suites, as E-flat is an uncomfortable key on the cello and requires many extended left hand positions.”

The fourth suite is structured as follows:

1. Prelude
2. Allemande
3. Courante
4. Sarabande
5. Bourree 1 & 2
6. Gigue

Not too terribly different from the others. Let’s look at them.

The prelude, as Wikipedia says, “primarily consists of a difficult flowing quaver movement that leaves room for a cadenza before returning to its original theme.” Something that strikes me when I listen to the prelude, and maybe other preludes or movements of other suites as well, but particularly this one, I think, is the sense of travel. While the figuration, in common time, of the eighth notes from bar to bar (or every few bars) is largely repeated or at least similar, harmonically, there is a sense of moving away from somewhere or something (E-flat major). The first chord of the movement doesn’t appear until bar 59, so there’s only ever one note playing until then, but there is a sense of developed or implied harmony that moves and shifts into new areas, if only ever so briefly, and delicately, before getting to that cadenza and back. It’s a seemingly straightforward, simple three-ish minutes, but what it accomplishes is incredible.

I find the Allemande to be especially charming. Isserlis plays it crisply, without too much accent or overdramatized heft, but just crisp and clean, with a spring in its step. It has a stately air to it without being stuffy. The second section brings us a bit farther from our point of origin, this same sense of travel and development with what really seems to be a very small amount of material. Was Bach a minimalist?

The Courante is very interesting, notable for its use of triplets in the 3/4 meter, with eighths and sixteenths and sudden triplets. The tied triplets that end chords, really the ending of the first section, is stunningly elegant and rich and beautiful. Isserlis begins the second part quietly, and the contrast is wonderful. There’s more room for expression, or just more variance in this movement, with triplets and all the rest. Gigue aside, it’s the shortest movement of the suite, and is terribly charming.

The Sarabande is, as always (at least in the major-key suites), a welcome contrast, Bach’s “let’s slow things down” moment. Lots of chords and double/triple stops, trills, and the effect is that we can stop and savor more the textures and tastes and colors of each note instead of enjoying them as they whizz by.

The first Bourrée is crunchy and lively and bright and spirited. It’s about the fastest tempo of anything in this suite so far, and in contrast is the very short and more somber but still a bit bouncy Bourée II. With its two parts, it’s the longest movement of the suite, and really breathtaking in … something? It its expressiveness, pleasantness, its spirit. I almost feel like this is the climax of the suite.

I say that because what comes next almost feels like an encore. The Gigue is such a romping, playful thing that it makes me laugh. It’s not comical, but so carefree and light and buoyant and expressive cheerful that it brings a smile to the face. It’s really an amazing way to end this quite bright, friendly suite.

I’m sorry I don’t have much to say specifically about the harmonic structure, technical layout, performance notes, and all of that. It’s just not in my wheelhouse. I will never perform this piece, and I feel like much of that information, that professional analysis is for someone who’s on that performance path, who needs it for interpretive purposes, to inform a reading of the work. I found Bach quite intimidating to talk about, and still do, but if nothing else, a quick little explanation like the above might help a new listener to process it in a way that might be, while not ‘historically accurate’ or ‘true to the composer’s intention’s in being more emotional or narratological, it’s more personal than cerebral, and that’s a way in for an amateur listener of any kind, and there is a ton to enjoy about this suite without getting bogged down in theory and analysis. It’s wonderful.

I must also say I haven’t really given ear to anyone else’s interpretations aside from Steven Isserlis’ recordings. I find them incredibly detailed and precise without being dry. I’ve listened through to a few others, and own the Casals set, but haven’t really listened to them much. Isserlis is it.

We have two more suites left in the set before we’ll move on to the solo violin or keyboard works, but I guess the keyboard stuff doesn’t fit into the “String (Quartet) Series” on the weekends. Stay tuned.

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One thought on “Bach Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat, BWV 1010

  1. You may also like to try the 2006 recording by Ophélie Gaillard. That is the only recording that I knew so far, but I will try Steven Isserlis’ version. Curious about the differences…

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