By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Steven Isserlis’ new guide explores Bach’s six Cello Suites in a series of discussions generously strewn with insights, illuminations, and literary allusions culminating in a movement-by-movement description of each of the six Suites. All of this is written as if he were conversing with friends, and all in an attempt to somehow counteract the vexing fact that since we don’t have Bach’s original manuscript, we don’t really know how he wanted them played, from instrument to speeds to dynamics to bowings.
The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion
by Steven Isserlis
Faber & Faber, $9.95 (Kindle) or $17.95 (hardcover)
Isserlis believes that Bach wrote the Suites for a Baroque cello “as we have come to know it,” and that the Suites are a prime example of how Bach’s music “is always dictated by a divine logic,” which leads him to delve deeply into spirituality and number theory. Underlying all is his own extensive musical experience. “The story of the music,” he writes, “lies in that journey through tonalities—composers think in harmonies.”
Isserlis folds most of his interpretive advice and thinking into his narrative about the Suites’ emergence in the 20th century and the march toward modern clean editions. He provides observations on the preludes and dance forms of which the Suites consist, plus 14 “Rules for the Player,” including “Don’t be scared of Bach—he’s not scared of you,” “Read all you can,” “Play on an instrument from Bach’s time,” “Be careful how you play your chords: there are a lot of them, and they must neither scrunch nor distort the rhythms,” and “Dance!”
And while musical knowledge enhances the reading, anyone can identify with Isserlis when he writes about playing without the music: “The memory aspect is terrifying: I’m always convinced that I’m going to forget the next note.”
Isserlis has also supplied an engaging short biography, a discursive glossary of musical terms, and an excellent bibliography that even lists Anner Bylsma’s quirky Bach, the Fencing Master. The text includes the relevant track numbers and timings to Isserlis’ recording for Hyperion on which he played the 1730 “De Munck, Feuermann” Strad (his 1745 Guadagnini on No. 5) with his Tourte and strung with Pirastro Eudoxa A, D, G, and Oliv C covered gut strings.