By Cristina Schreil
When you think of Bach’s beloved cello suites you usually think of, well, the cello. Violinist Johnny Gandelsman had another idea.
The violinist, known for his in-depth project of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas and playing with string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Ensemble, has launched another project. He’s recording Bach’s complete cello suites on violin, to be released next year. “All things pointed toward this project as a natural progression after doing the sonatas and partitas,” he says.
Many types of musicians have recorded these suites, Gandelsman notes. There’s versions on viola, bass, marimba, horn, banjo, and mandolin. Yet, violin hasn’t really been done until recently—he mentions violinist Rachel Podger’s recent album.
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“I do hope that these pieces will be taken up by more violinists because there’s so much to learn there about playing Bach,” Gandelsman says.
He took a second soon after launching the Kickstarter campaign to chat with us about the project, how folk and fiddling are inspirations, and how the violin has brought out Bach in fascinating ways.
You’ve been deep diving into Bach for a while and on your Kickstarter, you say that you knew the cello suites would be next. When did you decide that?
Well, you know, over the last two years I’ve had a chance to hang out and spend time [cellist] Anner Bylsma in Amsterdam. Every conversation with Anner ended up at some point on Bach. A few years back now, I was looking through one of his books about the cello suites and he actually has an edition of the suites for violin, just for practice purposes. I remember that piquing my interest. And then, I don’t know, I started just learning a movement here, a movement there, and seeing how they felt on the instrument. They actually ended up feeling really good. I decided to give it a shot.
There were some other things that piqued my interest; they’re both related to folk music. When talking to fiddlers who play traditional American music, they talked about playing on a five-string violin or playing on different tuning, which could be required to do the fifth and sixth cello suites—the sixth being for a five-string instrument and the fifth written with scordatura tuning. I haven’t played in scordatura a lot, I’ve only had basically one chance to do that about a year ago. I thought it would be fun and these would be skills that would be useful to have as a musician, as a violinist, to be comfortable with both different tunings and having an extra string.
What sheet music are you reading from?
I just found a version of them on IMSLP. It’s not an arrangement it’s just a transcription, transposed a fifth up except for the last suite.
Back to when you were just starting to get a feel for them—how did they feel, specifically? Any surprises?
The biggest surprise to me when I started was: Often when one hears those pieces on the cello, they assume kind of a majestic and grand character. What I really enjoyed about playing them on the violin was how light and nimble and more lighthearted they felt. I’m thinking in particular about the first movement of the fourth cello suite. It has these great big leaps, which I only imagine are quite difficult on the cello. And so, the whole movement assumes this majestic quality. But on the violin, that difficulty is just not there. Suddenly, the character of the movement presented itself as very different from what I was familiar with before, in terms of lightness. I hesitate to say speed, but things just [have] a bit more of a moving tempo than what I was used to hearing.
Can you tell us more about how folk and fiddling became an inspiration?
For example, when imagining the very first movement of the first sonata, which is, one could say, a beautifully written-out improvisation, I was thinking about my friend Kayhan Kalhor, a Persian kamancheh player. A kamancheh is a spiked fiddle from Iran. It was in my head imagining him ornamenting things in a very particular way, but also being able to draw one note and then just ornament that and finding ways to get from point A to point B in a beautiful improvised manner that felt very natural. That kind of opens my senses a little bit to what could be done with that Adagio in the first sonata.
Similarly, working closely with one of my absolute heroes, the Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, has been an inspiration. Just hearing him playing both slow airs and gigues or reels and a sense of articulation and bowing style that are appropriate in Irish traditional music helped me find folk connections in the gigues and the suites. And I posted videos of two gigues on the Kickstarter page and one could probably hear what I mean by that.
What I really enjoyed about playing them on the violin was how light and nimble and more lighthearted they felt.
Speaking of your Kickstarter videos—tell us about your choice to record to tape.
Well, tape is the medium that one doesn’t get to use all that much in recordings and it’s just been something that I wanted to try and see what it feels like. This particular project felt like a good way to start. Because of the range of the violin and because the suites—all but the last one—are all transposed a fifth up, I was a little bit worried about how things that are in the high register would sound on the violin. I was worried that maybe it would sound a little bit shrill. And, tape is said to add warmth and depth to the low range but also take away some possible harshness from the upper registers.
And so, I tried it for the first session back in February or March. It was great, it worked really nicely. I noticed particularly in the second suite, which is for violin in A minor, that there are a lot of open As and open Es. The harshness was not a problem at all. It kind of gave a different dimension to the sound. There’s more texture and more palpable textures with the bow on the string. It was fun.
What are other advantages of tape?
The other thing about tape is that one doesn’t want to edit too much with tape. The idea with using it is that you want to use big takes. You can’t micromanage every note. That was also the approach with both of the suites and also the quartet album, taking big takes and [knowing that] the edits that are going to come together are going to be from large edits. When you have the option to edit everything, it’s very easy to go down that rabbit hole.
You note a few well-known recordings of the Bach suites by several cellists. Did you use any as reference points?
Actually, not at all. I really tried not to listen to anyone playing—also because I love all of the people and their playing, as different as it is from one to another. It’s great. It really is iconic and kind of burned into so many people’s psyche and knowledge of what this sounds like.
I really tried to not go there and find my own way with these pieces and not be influenced. I heard Italian gamba player Paolo Pandolfo playing the suites, which I was not familiar with before. Since then I’ve grown to really love his approach—really interesting and a beautiful sense of imagination. And different harmonizations, because he can on the gamba. That’s someone that I’ve recently been inspired by, but I really tried not to listen to Paolo either.
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How can playing the suites help violinists with their understanding of Bach?
In a way I can imagine them being a better place to start learning how to play Bach than the violin pieces, because unlike the violin Sonatas, in the suites the counterpoint and the multiple voices are, for the most part, embedded within a single line. There aren’t that many double stops. It’s just not the same as learning a violin fugue or the chaconne. I think a lot of amateur players who love playing Bach should, they probably do already, but the cello suites are a good place to start.
What’s interesting about the last suite, too, is I remember listening to the sixth suite on a four-string cello and thinking, “Wow, this is such a virtuosic feat to play.” It’s so demanding on a cellist. And then, I remembered hearing it on a five-string cello in concert and it’s such a different experience. It sounded like completely different music, so much lighter. It was less about the technical demands . . . I noticed the music more. On the cello, when you add the fifth string it’s the upper string. There are a lot of notes on that string—that’s why when that string is not there it’s demanding, you end up playing a bunch of stuff on the upper strings. With the violin, it’s the opposite: The violin’s fifth string is the bottom string. I didn’t know that before. There aren’t that many notes in the sixth suite on the C string, but it does give a nice resonance. The range is nice.