By Brian Forst | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Bach’s Cello Suites, BWV 1007–1012, are the perfect medicine for cellists trying to cope during the pandemic. They offer challenges for even the most accomplished musician, and some of the pieces provide accessible playing opportunities for amateurs too. I play the Prelude to the Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, several times daily, usually after listening to a recording by a master. This daily exercise teaches me cello. The G major Prelude is a masterpiece of musical expression, with limitless opportunities for interpretation.
Of course, to play this or any other piece well, you must first learn to play the notes on the score as accurately and cleanly as you can. Then it is time to find your voice. Both of these stages can be informed by listening to master musicians. Surveying recorded versions by renowned cellists reveals myriad interpretations of the Bach suites—never mind versions on viola, violin, bass, guitar, piano, and clarinet. Variations are apparent as well in different recordings by the same cellist—Yo-Yo Ma has three versions; Janos Starker, Anner Bylsma, Matt Haimovitz, and Pieter Wispelwey two each. Some cellists play it in Baroque style, others in modern; some slowly, a few at warp speed. Jaap ter Linden, on his 1997 recording, plays the G major Prelude deliberately, in 3:18; Heinrich Schiff, on his 1985 disc, knocks it off in 1:52.
Some play it with precise tick-tock cadence, as if conducted by metronome, like Paul Tortelier (1960). Others—like Mischa Maisky (1985), Gavriel Lipkind (2006), Steven Isserlis (2007), and Zuill Bailey (2010)—perform it with exquisite, creative phrasing. Given the vast range of options, it should not be surprising that the recorded variations of the Bach Cello Suites are about as numerous, expansive, and expressive as the recordings of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” written over 250 years later—even in an era when popular-music audiences vastly outnumber those for classical music.
These many interpretations help to unlock the mysteries of the music. The rich opportunity to find one’s own interpretation is available in no small part because no copy of the score exists written in Bach’s hand. Bowing and phrasing options are mostly up to the performer. It is a blueprint with blurred lines.
I learned to play the Prelude by following Pierre Fournier’s edition and listening to my teacher. But I learned it no less listening to the masters. You can too. Listen to Fournier’s recording and then play the Prelude thinking about his elegant way of making each note clearly heard. Listen to Jacqueline du Pré’s version and then aim to play it with raw authenticity. Listen to Mstislav Rostropovich and then play it informed by his sense of urgency and impatient authority. Listen to Janos Starker and then play the piece emulating his unique call-echo phrasing in the opening passages. Listen to Yo-Yo Ma and then play it with joy and exuberance. Listen to Truls Mørk and then emulate his quiet, contemplative approach. Listen to Richard Narroway and then aim for the air of sweet melancholy he creates. Listen to Alisa Weilerstein and then try to capture the sublime delicacy of her performance. Listen and learn.
All the great performers of this work share one thing at least: each is a storyteller. And the G major Prelude is a sweet, beautiful musical story. Bach crafted it with complete sentences and paragraphs. Each of the masters delivers it with his or her unique voice.
You can bring these and other cello icons into your daily practice routine. You may not match the agility, technical skill, and sound quality you hear from the masters, but you can be informed and inspired by the extraordinary range of possibilities they demonstrate. As you find your own voice and interpretation—your own way of telling the story—your technique and approach are bound to improve along the way, not only in playing this magnificent work, but in everything else you play and do as well.
Brian Forst is professor emeritus at the American University School of Public Affairs. He is author of nine books, most recently Life on the Other Side: Fifty Things Learned in Retirement (Balboa Press, 2020). He lives in Reston, Virginia.