Julia MacLaine’s ‘Preludes’ Mixes Bach and Contemporary Cello Works

Cellist Julia MacLaine's "Preludes" includes 6 newly commissioned responses to the preludes to Bach's Cello Suites as well as Bach's original preludes.

By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

For this remarkable new recording, cellist Julia MacLaine took her inspiration from Bonnie Hampton’s performance at Juilliard of six Bach preludes interspersed with existing contemporary works for cello. With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, MacLaine commissioned six Canadian composers to write new responses to the preludes, and the result transcends anything imagined by Bach for his Suites, magnificent and transfixing as they are on their own. On recording, the cumulative effect of the 12 tracks is riveting; with the attendant challenges of a live performance, it would be breathtaking.


Airat Ichmouratov’s Praeludium, Op. 69,is richly reminiscent of the original with wonderful amber overtones; Gabriel Dharmoo’s sarasaraahat, inspired by Indian Carnatic music, has the cellist make sounds and noises so incomprehensible you want to see how they’re notated in the score. “Play the score as if you just heard the Bach Cello Suite No. 3 for the first time, and now sit down to improvise, playful as a child,” says Carmen Braden about her absorbing Play Time, as if she were building music with Legos.

Following MacLaine’s eloquent fourth prelude, Nicole Lizée’s In Prayers for Ruin, referring to urbex adventurists exploring the “decaying and faded remnants of lost melodies,” begins as a gorgeous electronic fantasy before morphing into something haunted. After MacLaine’s unusually persuasive performance of the fifth prelude, Cree cellist Cris Derksen’s “response as an Indigenous composer and cellist,” LAND BACH takes off in such a different direction that it affirms why classical music persists; worked out with an intricate, eternal precision, it is almost a whole suite in one movement.

MacLaine finds mesmerizing ghostly spaces within the D major resonances of Prelude No. 6 before a fellow Prince Edward Islander, fiddler Roy Johnstone, tears into his Post Bach world, “a take on a folk medley,” as if he were obsessed. Pulling out a series of double-stopped chords on the lower strings that MacLaine describes as “a glimpse of the underworld, the murky place that gave rise to the motives that permeate Bach,” the music ends defiantly with a series of held chords.